Rest, Hope, and Order

“How should Shabbat effect my life? a candidate for conversion recently asked me.  “Like everybody I welcome weekly rest, a time to collect and refresh.  But does the Torah have any other designs for Shabbat’s impact on me?”  We considered how the Ten Commandments associate Shabbat with Creation and the Exodus.  I replied, “Beyond creativity and possibility Shabbat is also associated with order.  And order’s esteem for boundaries and distinctions is made clearest in this week’s portion of Torah.” 

The repetition of an individual’s name in Scripture signals a defining moment.  Abraham, Abraham (Gen. 22:11).  Jacob, Jacob (Gen. 46:2).  Moses, Moses (Ex. 3:4).  Even the repetition of God’s Name signals God’s essential rapport to humankind (Ex. 34:6).  So too the repetition in this week of “On the Sabbath day, on the Sabbath day” (b’yom haShabbat, b’yom haShabbat) signals a defining moment for the Sabbath’s identity (Lev. 24:8).   The Torah’s third book offers a third significance to seventh day.  Not only is Yom Kippur renamed the Sabbath of Sabbaths, every Festival gets called Shabbat in the book of Leviticus where land and even economic systems enjoy Sabbatical restoration.  Shabbat thus grants rest from labor, hope from despair, and order from anarchy.

Generosity from each of these Sabbath gifts is appreciated these days.  Challenges to order and law abound.  Daily we find ourselves face-to-face with those who sow dissent and dissolution.  We are developing new muscle memory for leaping to conclusions.  Verdicts are sealed before cases are heard.  Seldom do we listen.  Rarely do we learn. 

Shabbat restores our capacity to weigh and measure.  It liberates the potential to go high when others go low.  As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman likes to say, “When someone says something, don’t just ask yourself if it is true, ask yourself what might it be true of.” 

Weekly we reunite with the Sabbath’s armistice from absurdity.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed, “In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness when a person may enter a harbor and reclaim her or his dignity.” 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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