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Shabbat as an Act of Resistance – Rosh Hashana

Shana tovah and Shabbat Shalom!

Every year, people ask me whether the Jewish holidays are going to be early or late. This year, I was able to say: they are at exactly the perfect time. They start after Labor Day, they’ll end before the long weekend in October, and three of the four festival days fall on Shabbat.

This last part might be disappointing for students and teachers who were hoping for some extra days off from school. But having the holidays on Shabbat makes it just a little bit easier for far-flung adult children to come home, for working people to take time off, and for rabbis to kick off the New Year with an exponential increase in Shabbat attendance.

This fortuitous timing also gives us an incredible opportunity to welcome the New Year and observe Shabbat as a community, all at the same time.

When I realized that Rosh Hashana would fall on Shabbat this year, I went back to look at a sermon I’d given about keeping Shabbat way back in 2010. Fresh off a three-week stint in Jerusalem, I was trying to sell my then-congregation on the magic of a traditional Shabbat. I talked about how spending time connected to community—and disconnected from the incessant creep of technology—might enhance our increasingly busy lives. I introduced a multi-session educational program designed to give people a taste of what Shabbat could be. I even gave out specially branded “cell-phone sleeping bags.” Cute, right?

Now, nearly an entire b’nai mitzvah child worth of years later, the technology I once denounced as “creeping” is all but embedded in our retinas. Earlier this year, when I returned from my mini-sabbatical, I joked that I had spent those six weeks having my smart-phone surgically removed from my body.

Thirteen years after that Shabbat sermon, we are no less busy. We are no less addicted to technology. We are no more attuned to the ebb and flow of the Jewish calendar or the cycles of natural world, as I’d hoped we might be.

I still believe what I believed back in 2010: that Shabbat provides us with a vital opportunity to reconnect with what matters, and that we don’t take advantage of it enough, myself included. I still believe that a regular Shabbat practice—however we may imagine it—can enhance our lives as individuals, families, and communities.

But the message buried deep in that old sermon, one that is even more urgent today, is that in the world we currently live in, Shabbat is an act of resistance. At its core, Shabbat is a protest against problematic societal norms, a means of envisioning a better world, and a reminder of our responsibility to keep working towards it. Keeping Shabbat is not merely meant to rejuvenate us as individuals, families, or synagogues. Shabbat is meant to remind us that everyone in our society needs, and deserves, regular opportunities to rest, and that we are tasked with creating and sustaining a world in which that is possible.

Today, the idea of taking 25 hours off each week from anything seems pretty countercultural. But even from the outset, Shabbat has been a radical idea. It is the only festival observance mentioned in the 10 commandments. And each time it is commanded, the Torah reminds us of an essential truth from our people’s sacred story. The first is that on the seventh day of creation, right after creating human beings, God rested, sanctifying Shabbat as a holy day for all time. Keeping Shabbat reinforces the idea that we are partners with God in the ongoing project of creation, and that we are empowered with the God-like task of sanctifying time.

The second essential truth embedded in this commandment is that we were once slaves in Egypt. Our inherent dignity was violated for centuries under Pharaoh’s rule. Our time, our labor, and even our physical bodies were not our own. Thus, in our early days of freedom, when we were wandering in the wilderness, we had to learn to mark time as a means of breaking down our slave mentality.

God introduces us to the rhythms of Jewish time even as we are still preparing for our impending departure from Egypt (Or as one of my students once said, “Happy Freedom! I got you this calendar!”). Shabbat thus became a starting point for building a free and just society. We could not even gather manna on Shabbat, we could not work, and we could not force others to work.

Shabbat was a sign of our covenant with God as a free people. According to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, this covenant serves as a protest against slavery and a safeguard against idolatry. He writes:

“Idolatry is not merely worship of stone and wood. Idolatry consists of giving absolute authority to something relative, that is, to anything other than the Divine. In degrading another human-in-the-image-of-God for the sake of achievement or profit, in sacrificing human relationships for work, in wantonly destroying some part of the world for production, one sets up work as the ultimate authority and abides by its dictates. That is idolatry. The Sabbath is designed to take one out of such a framework” (The Jewish Way p. 137).

We probably don’t have to look too far to find contemporary examples of how we subjugate human dignity—or the beauty of the natural world—for the sake of power and profit.

In her book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, artist and cultural critic Jenny Odell describes how this dynamic manifests itself in the modern workforce. In a system where “time is money,” each minute is treated like a unit of currency that can and must be maximized in terms of productivity and profit. When a person’s day is seen only as an accumulation of potential working hours, there is an incentive for human beings to act more like machines, or risk being replaced by them.

This is what leads to practices like tracking warehouse workers’ and delivery drivers’ movements with a GPS, or setting strict limits on workers’ meal and bathroom breaks (Saving Time p. 8).In such a system, any time that we are not working is perceived as income lost, “stolen” from our employer, or from our own potential earnings. We must either be constantly busy, or constantly perform busyness to be seen as useful to society. Lest we think we can somehow “win” this game if we play hard enough, before long, we realize that “the only reward for working faster is more work” (Saving Time p. 26, 48, 75).

Odell writes: “While labor time is disembodied and uniform for the buyer, who can always buy more, this is not the case for the laboring person, who gets only one life and one body” (Saving Time p. xxi).

In recent years, the emergence of the “attention economy” has meant that even our “downtime” is monetized. Even if we are only using social media for fun, it is using us to collect data to sell to advertisers, who then turn around to sell us what they think we should want.

In a society where we are measured mostly by what we produce and what we consume, Shabbat serves as a stubborn affirmation that a human being has intrinsic value.

Though social media can be part of the systems that dehumanize us, it was actually through Twitter that I discovered “The Nap Ministry.” Run by Tricia Hersey, an artist, activist, and self-appointed “Nap Bishop,” the posts at first appear to be promoting “self-care,” with entreaties to “Go lay down. Go rest your eyes. Go daydream. Slow down.” But “The Nap Ministry” is not about scented candles and spa days. It is about resisting the structures in our society that make it impossible for us to rest.

One post says: “Reminder: we are not resting so that we can do more. We simply just resting. We are resting because it’s our divine and human right to do so. It’s not about more output.”

Recently, Hersey compiled her thoughts on rest into an incredible book called Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto. For Hersey, the enemy is not the alarm clock or the calendar, but the pervasive concept of “grind culture,” which “centers constant labor, material wealth, and overworking as a badge of honor” (Rest Is Resistance, Loc 243).

For many of us in this room, “grind” or “hustle” culture looks like being constantly plugged into our primary jobs (what theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls being “a quivering mass of availability”). It is keeping our children scheduled to the minute with academic and extracurricular pursuits, such that we eat most of our meals in the car. It is turning our hobbies into “side hustles” that earn extra income, and spending our “downtime” promoting our “brand” on our social media. It is “gamifying” all our activities by logging them in apps and smartwatches, such that even a walk in the woods is reduced to a number of steps.

Many of us can look at grind culture from a place of privilege: if we wanted to take a step back, we could probably do it with relatively minor consequences. And we should absolutely do that.

But for many people in our society, “grind culture” means wages so low—particularly in the essential fields of service, education, and caregiving—that people must work several jobs to stay afloat. Grind culture is tying our healthcare and other social safety nets to working a certain number of hours. Or, if we can’t work, making us jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove that we are “deserving” of assistance. Grind culture is unfair or unsafe labor practices that treat employees like machines that might easily be discarded or replaced, whether by another human being or by an actual machine. This is particularly true for immigrants, people of color, and other vulnerable groups in our society.

Hersey writes: “Capitalism has cornered us in such a way that we only can comprehend two options. 1: Work at a machine level, from a disconnected and exhausted place, or 2: Make space for rest and space to connect with our highest selves while fearing how we will eat and live” (Rest Is Resistance, Loc 156).

She declares that: “Rest is radical because it disrupts the lie that we are not doing enough. …. We are stripped down to who we really were before the terror of capitalism and white supremacy. We are enough. We are divine. Our bodies don’t belong to these toxic systems” (Rest Is Resistance, Loc 92)

Building a society that provides time and space for rest is an acknowledgement that human beings, and the world we live in, are a limited resource, and that not every minute exists only to be optimized and turned into capital.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the word Shabbat shares its root with shvita, the Hebrew word for “strike.” Many of the strikes going on in our country right now—in the auto industry, in the service economy, and in creative work— are in response to the dehumanizing pervasiveness of grind culture.

Most of us in this room don’t need to go on strike in order to rest. We don’t need to retire or “quiet quit” or go on some Eat, Pray, Love-style odyssey to protest this culture of overworking. We don’t even need to adhere to the strictures of a traditional Sabbath. Rather, we are tasked with finding our own small ways to affirm that we are worth more than what we produce and what we consume. For Hersey, that can be as simple as closing our eyes for a moment, taking a hiatus from social media, or saying “no” to requests for more of our time, especially when it isn’t fairly compensated, or when the trade-off is too high. For us as a Jewish community, it can mean making space and time to connect with self, family, and community, somewhere within the 25 hours of Shabbat. But it also means recognizing that part of our “work,” when we aren’t resting, is to challenge the societal structures that make rest impossible for so many others.

Shabbat is a vision for what life should be. The ancient rabbis called it a “foretaste [literally “1/60th”] of the world-to-come” (Brachot 57b). For generations that lived hand-to-mouth, this meant a day to imagine the pleasures of the afterlife, even if just by sharing an extra, unhurried meal (which would probably still feel like a luxury today). But for us, living in a time of greater ease and abundance, this day challenges us to consider how we might make this dream a reality here on earth, beyond the walls of our homes and our faith communities.

What needs to happen so that everyone in our society has the space, time, and the resources to be able to rest?

While some industries might answer this question by providing “nap pods” in the workplace, Odell suggests that the only way to address this is with policies related to both time and money. These might include a higher minimum wage, subsidized childcare, paid leave, better overtime laws, “fair workweek” laws for part-time employees, a federal jobs guarantee, and universal basic income. It also means challenging systems that “steal” time from the most vulnerable: poor public transportation, inadequate public education, community violence, mass incarceration, and bureaucratic red tape that prevents people from receiving much-needed assistance (Saving Time pp. 62-63),

Our friends at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism currently have campaigns in place to address many of these systemic issues under the heading of “Economic Justice.” There is the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. There is an opportunity to urge our representatives to strengthen the social safety net through programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, and housing assistance. There is also the Family Act, would provide workers with 12 weeks of partial paid leave to care for themselves or a family member, regardless of the size of their workplace, paid for with a small tax on their earnings.

By the way, this is something that is still not common practice across Jewish institutions. The Women’s Rabbinic Network has been tireless in advocating for pay equity and paid family leave in our communities, to the benefit of professionals in all roles, at all levels, and of all genders. They are also worthy of our support in these efforts to take back our stolen time.

Shabbat is a protest against the external forces that urge us to commodify and capitalize upon every minute of our day. But it is also a protest against the internal voice that tells us we should always be trying to do more. My generation was raised to believe we could do anything. But it is also important for us to learn that we can’t do everything.

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman writes:

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead” (Burkeman p. 234).

As we prepare to enter a new year, we ask ourselves: What is it that might be gloriously possible if we could direct our time and attention to it this year? What might we have to step away from to make that possibility a glorious reality?

The question of how to keep Shabbat has become increasingly complex as the lines between work and life continue to blur. Some of the things we might want to do are technically work according to the Jewish tradition. Can we celebrate a wedding? March at PRIDE? Attend a protest? Can we run a marathon, dig in the garden, or create art?

This last question came up frequently during my time at the URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, where we literally spend Shabbat making artistic “offerings” for Shabbat services and preparing pieces for our final Showcase. Was this work? Was it rest? And did it matter?

One possible answer came from my colleague, Rabbi Elisa Koppel. The rabbis tell us that the world stands on three things. Two of them, Torah and Gemilut Chasadim, are fairly straightforward: study and acts of kindness. The remaining pillar—Avodah—can be translated three ways: prayer, work, or service. Avodah refers to the ancient sacrificial service, and also to our contemporary prayers.

But Rabbi Koppel suggests that it can also refer to the paradox of “work that we love.”

Keeping Shabbat is not simply about drawing rigid boundaries between work and rest. It is about making sure we have time for what matters, whether that is our own well-being, time spent with loved ones, or the work we need to do to build a society where everyone can rest. It is about allocating a sliver of our precious time, turning and returning our scattered attention, towards whatever it is that we love.

Shabbat shalom, and Shana tovah!

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz