Friday, April 26, 2013

The Sabbath: An Affirmation of Labor

Sabbath-blogging, essay 5 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

“The Sabbath as a
day of abstaining from work
is not a depreciation
but an affirmation of labor,
a divine exaltation of its dignity.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 2:  “Beyond Civilization”

Yesterday, I looked through the work of one of my favorite Christian bloggers, Richard Beck of Experimental Theology, to see if he had ever weighed in on the Sabbath.  It turns out that he has—but his main blog entry on the subject was somewhat disheartening.  In “Time and the Sabbath,” Beck speaks highly of Abraham Joshua Heschel and respects Heschel’s poetic conception of time, but nevertheless remains skeptical of Christian Sabbath-dabblers.  He writes:

“(I)t seems that many Christians are using the notion of Sabbath to provide spiritual cover for a period of self-focus. It’s horribly judgmental of me to say this, but much of what passes for ‘Sabbath’ in Christian circles seems to be (a) case of self-indulgence. A means, for example, to get a little peace and quiet away from the family, to justify time set aside for the self…”

End of Deuteronomy framed
by micrographical design,
from a Pentateuch with
masorah magna and parva,
from Spain, circa 1400.
From the British Library
Catalogue of Illuminated
I hope I’m avoiding that in my approach, which is very based on the idea that Heschel expresses in the quote at the top of this entry.  Observance of the Sabbath isn’t just about that single day at the end of the week.  Sabbath requires the establishment of a different beat of ongoing rhythm to the entire week.  If I’m going to accept that single day of relaxation, self-focus, and maybe even self-indulgence, I feel a duty to counterbalance that with six days of work.  In the paragraph that follows the quote, Heschel writes, “The duty to work for six days is just as much a part of God’s covenant with man as the duty to abstain from work on the seventh day.”

As a Christian, I include the tasks of Kingdom-building within the work of those six days.  And it’s probably wrong of me to restrict that thought to Christianity because I think Heschel—like a Jewish prophet of old—was fully engaged with the work of Kingdom-building himself, as notably demonstrated when he walked side-by-side with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma Civil Rights March.  Heschel dedicated his six working days to creating a better world through his actions, his teaching, and his writing.  On the Sabbath, he graciously accepted and acknowledged the gift of a day where a little self-indulgence can be winked at.

My own sense of responsibility for accomplishing work within a six-day time frame has increased during this period of Sabbath experimentation.  I’m extremely fortunate that my day job—raising funds for a nonprofit dedicated to preserving mankind’s cultural heritage—feels like authentic service to me.  In addition, I’m co-teaching a series on “Ancient Spiritual Practices” at my church on Wednesday nights.  On the first day of the week (following my Sabbath), I attend worship and participate in an adult Sunday School class.  Plus, there are the never-ending tasks (laundry, dishes, etc.) that may not contribute to world peace but are essential for maintaining domestic harmony.  And, of course, I blog, too—and I’d prefer to believe that my blogging is a contribution to the world’s culture rather than pure self-indulgence (please indulge me in my conceit!).

In early March, I found myself unable to face writing another Tour America’s Treasures blog entry.  I was burnt out, desperately needing a break.  So I posted on Tour America’s Treasures that I was going to take a two-week sabbatical.  At that point, I was writing about the Creature from the Black Lagoon on 21 Essays, with only an occasional thought about the upcoming series that I hoped to do on the Sabbath.  I was thinking in academic terms when I wrote the word “Sabbatical,” not making the connection that its linguistic roots go back to the Hebrew Shabbat.  As it turned out, I needed that sabbatical.  One can’t be creating all the time, seven days a week, month after month;  I like that God gives us permission to take a break.  Afterwards, I returned to the blog refreshed, ready to celebrate our nation’s treasures again.

My conclusion?  The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from blogging is not a depreciation but an affirmation of blogging, a divine exaltation of its dignity.

“The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity.  Thou shalt abstain from labor on the seventh day is a sequel to the command:  Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 2:  “Beyond Civilization”

Full-page image of a menorah,
from Commentary on the Pentateuch
by Levi ben Gershon,
from France (Avignon), 1429.
From the British Library Catalogue of
Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price

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