Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Sabbath (Book Review)

The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel tip-toes the line of soul and mind. The dream-like prose is packed with zeal for a day he calls, "a palace in time":
The seventh day is a mine where spirit's precious metal can be found with which to construct a palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine. For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom at the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.
According to Heschel there are two divisions of the world: space and time. We are well acquainted with space, creating and toiling, but, we are less familiar with time. First, we start with space. Our endeavors in space can help us understand God as Creator. For example, I built Adirondack chairs the other week, therefore, I created on a much smaller scale. Furthermore, I can tell you, there is satisfaction in the toil and I feel a connection to the chairs built. In this sense, with this small metaphor I gain insight into God. Yet, as Heschel points out the likeness of God is too grand to be captured in an object.

What Heschel spends much more pages writing about is time. Writing about the nature of time Heschel looks to the Bible and ancient rabbis. Genesis 2:2 reads, "On the seventh day God finished his work," Exodus 20:11 reads, "In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth." Wait a minute . . . He made the heaven and the earth in 6 days but finished on the 7th? The rabbi's resolved this by stating that menuha was created on the Sabbath. Menuha is not an object like my Adirondack chair that can be grasped, rather, Heschel states menuha means something akin to "tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose". God created an architecture in time and menuha is the special attribute of the seventh day.

The fact that God blessed the seventh day, and not the other days, should hint that the seventh day is special. What this means is that time is not homogeneous ---some time is different than other time. What I take this to mean is, there is time for creating and time for remembering that we were created. On the seventh day we remember our relationship with God, that remembrance is a refuge from a fury of sound and distraction. What is more, this remembrance carries us through the rest of the week.

Heschel regales the reader with stories of Jewish people practicing the Sabbath and embracing the day with vigor and longing. There are many stories that could be presented here, but, I will share only one,
Rabbi Solomon of Radomsk once arrived in a certain town, where, he was told, lived an old woman who had known the famous Rabbi Elimelech. She was too old go out, so he went to see her and asked her to tell him what she knew about the great Master. ---I do not know what went on in his room, because I worked as one of the maids in the kitchen of his house. Only one thing I can tell you. During the week the maids would often quarrel with one another, as is common. But, week after week, on Friday when the Sabbath was about to arrive, the spirit of the kitchen was like the spirit on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Everybody would be overcome with an urge to ask forgiveness of each other. We were all seized by a feeling of affection and inner peace.
This book gave me a passion and appreciation for the Sabbath that I did not have before reading this book. Heschel (below) at one point asks, ". . . is there any institution which holds out greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath?"

This is a great question. Given the level of pressure and stress, which negatively impacts many people's lives, it would seem we need to learn the discipline of rest. Not merely diversion but a palace in time that anchors our identity as image bearers of God.

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