by Rabbi Rami Shapiro
It’s Friday afternoon, and you cannot wait for the weekend. You are mentally exhausted, burned out from a week of dealing with other people’s deadlines, expectations, needs, and the ubiquitous insanity that passes for life in the post-modern world. You just want to go home, take a bath or shower, slip into something comfortable and breathe. But instead, what do you do?
While the specifics may differ, chances are you race home, and jump from one set of imposed obligations to another. You have errands to run, relationships with kids, spouses, partners, and friends to maintain, phone calls to make, blogs to write, tweets to post, TV shows to watch before your DVR fills up. You run from one exhaustive life to another and wonder why you are so tired on Monday morning. What you need is Shabbos.
I want to make a distinction among the following terms:
Shabbat, in a typical Jewish household, is too often a day filled with rules no less stress-inducing than those of the work place. You have to get to the synagogue, read hours of repetitive prayers, sit through a sermon that too often numbs the mind and rarely speaks to you and your life. What you need is Shabbos: a day with nothing to do but play.
Sabbath, in a Christian family, is too often just another day to get things done. You had a fight trying to get the kids to Sunday school on time. Then the preacher went long and the lines at the restaurant were out the door because the other churches were out before yours. You are a bit frantic as you race home to catch the game, wondering whether watching football players pray to Jesus on the gridiron is really what worship is all about. What you need is Shabbos: a day to play.
In the Book of Exodus (31:17) we learn that on the seventh day God “rested and was refreshed.” The Hebrew here is shavat va’yinafash, a phrase that Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch translates as “[God] ceased to create on the seventh day and withdrew into His own essence.”
What does it mean to cease to create? It doesn’t mean to stop being creative. You can be creative without having to create something, without the pressure to produce, to earn, to conform. You don’t have to make anything for anybody.
What is withdrawing into your essence? Genesis 1:27 tells us that you are the image of God. Genesis 2:7 links image to breath: you become the image of God when you breathe in the breath of God: that is, when we breathe freely as we do in meditation or play.
For me Shabbos is a day set aside to breathe freely; a day when we reject the delusion that we must earn our living and realize that we must celebrate it.
Now, for many the notion of withdrawing into one’s essence conjures up images of meditators sitting cross-legged on cushions and waiting for the ice cube of ego to melt into the sea of soul. Not bad if that’s your thing, but it isn’t the only way to make Shabbos. Let me suggest another: play.
What our world lacks, and what Shabbos can become, is a day for wild, free, and soul-awakening play. I’m not talking about professional play: contests organized around winners and losers. I’m talking about free play: play played for its own sake. Resting in the system of work isn’t enough; make Shabbos and shatter the system of work with sheer play.
There are two rules for making Shabbos:
For some, Shabbos play may mean taking a long walk alone or with a loved one (human or canine), and just celebrating the rhythm of the body without the stress of calling it exercise. For others it may be gathering with friends to make music or to engage in the pleasure of deep conversation. For still others it may mean a flash mob gathering in a park to play cooperative games played for the sheer joy of playing (see books like Cooperative Games and New Games for suggestions).
When we play just to play we return to our essence: the joy of merely being alive. We don’t have to earn a living, adhere to some imposed purpose, or meet anyone else’s standard of what it is to be humanly holy. We just play.
Shabbos was a revolutionary idea when first invented thousands of years ago. Over time it became Shabbat (Jewish) and Sabbath
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, essayist, and educator whose prayers are in prayer books around the world. Rabbi Rami teaches religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University. He can be reached via his website, rabbirami.com.