Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Sabbath: A Tent of Thy Peace

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 2 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

“What was created on the seventh day?
Tranquility, serenity,
peace, and repose.” *

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

In retrospect, I see there have been pieces of Sabbath time scattered through my life, without my realizing what they were.

Micography of a tree with birds,
from a Pentateuch from Germany,
second half of the 13th century.
From the British Library
Catalogue of Illuminated
At the age of 14, my son began volunteering on Saturdays at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  Since he had a terrible sense of direction, I volunteered to take him to the museum.  I walked him to the Academy, left him there, and continued up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  And I kept doing that for the next four years, long past the time when he needed my guidance.  I just wanted my quiet days in the city, calm time spent intimately learning the collections at the art museum.

Calm time with art is a Sabbath thing to do.  I’m in that narrow segment of people who find great art to be cleansing.  According to Sabbath lore, the soul yearns for cleansing and refreshment after six days of work.  Art works for me.  The art museum makes a good church.

- - - - -

The Boston Marathon was bombed on Monday.  The raw violence was shocking.  The evil behind it, unfathomable.

The next morning, the Boston Museum of Fine Art issued this statement:

In response to the tragic events at yesterday’s Boston Marathon, general admission to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), will be free to the public today, Tuesday, Apr. 16.  The Museum’s galleries and special exhibitions will be open for visitors who wish to find a place of respite during this painful time for our community.  Drop-in programs, including art-making activities, tours, and story hours for families and children, will also be available.

“Our entire community was affected by yesterday’s tragedy,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “We hope by opening the Museum’s doors and offering free admission we will be a place of comfort, refuge, and peace.”

The phrase “comfort, refuge, and peace” leaped out at me—three words often used in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath.  I don’t think you lose any of Heschel’s meaning if you replace the words that I quote at the top of this essay with these Art Museum words:

“What was created on the seventh day?  Comfort, refuge, and peace.

As a society, we don’t often think in Sabbath terms anymore, but an event like the Boston Marathon bombing can shock us back to fundamentals.

Before escaping to New York City in 1940, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) lived in Europe, watching the rise of the Nazis as he worked and studied in Germany, Poland, and London.  One by one, he lost most of his family.  Heschel’s mother was murdered by the Nazis, his sister Esther died in a German bombing, and his sisters Gittel and Devorah died in concentration camps.

You don’t really sense any of this background tragedy when reading The Sabbath.  It reads more like a joyous dance.  He kept his Sabbath as a palace in time (to borrow his very beautiful and poetic words).  Maybe by holding so tight to the Sabbath, Heschel was able to maintain that needed place of comfort, refuge, and peace in his life.  He didn’t give in to despair.

When I first read The Sabbath a year ago, I instantly made the connection that those weekend visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art were Sabbath time for me.  In that first reading, all I saw was the joy.  Later, I learned that he wrote the book in 1951, when all the wounds of Holocaust loss were still fresh.  I think Heschel would agree that the observance of Sabbath is a healing salve for evil times but that wasn’t his central point.  He argues in The Sabbath for the basic human need of weekly celebration—a weekly rhythm of joy—in all times.  Then, when we most desperately need that place of comfort, refuge and peace, it will be there.  It will be our tent of peace.

“Six evenings a week we pray:  ‘Guard our going out and our coming in’;  on the Sabbath evening we pray instead:  ‘Embrace us with a tent of Thy peace.’  Upon returning home from synagogue we intone the song:

Peace be to you,
Angels of Peace.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

*  A quote from Genesis Rabba, a midrash to the first book of the Torah, cited by Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath.

Illustration from a collection of liturgical poems for Passover
and for Shavuot (circa 1340, from Spain),
showing the Havdalah ceremony.
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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