The problem is the voices in your head

It seems that Shabbos is working anymore.

Don’t set the cholent cops on me just yet- I’ll explain. Shabbos is meant to refresh and rejuvenate us, right? It’s our chance to slow down, breathe, reconnect and return to the “world” refreshed.

Well, look around and tell me if you think that we’re walking into Sunday bright as a button.

We do all the right things: Power off tech (arguably the number one benefit of Shabbos), have a candlelit family dinner, sleep extra and revel in community. We complete the full timeout checklist, but as that Havdalah candles sizzles into the wine, we’re as edgy as when we powered off just over twenty-four hours earlier.

As good as we are at Shabbos compliance, there seems to be one component we can’t shut off, even on The Sabbath: The voices in our heads.

Jews in the Shtetl had fewer voices in their heads than we do. They had Shprintza, the yenta’s who would deliver local community scandals through the gossip mill. (You can be assured, those scandals came nothing close to today’s Hollywood stuff). Henoch, the shtetl doomsayer might have intoned how “one day” the Cossacks would come and kill everyone. But, I’d guess that people mostly worried about planting before the rains and collecting sufficient firewood. If the Cossacks attacked two towns away, the news would have been stale by the time it hit shtetl headlines. Today, every global flashpoint is live-streamed over coffee.

Shtetl people didn’t stress over their children’s grades (can you imagine Tevye thinking “my son, the doctor”?) or whether they were sufficiently stimulated by as wide an array of extra-curricular activities as the Cohen’s children. They had no TV doctors or best-seller expert books to pressure them into feeling inadequate as parents, spouses or simply as humans.

They would actually sleep at night. Fear of the plague kept fewer people up at night then than our screens do today.

We, on the other hand, have incessant intrusions into our thoughts. Be it the radio in our cars, the stream of news on social media or the myriad weekly whatsapp warnings we receive, the whole world intrudes on our peace of mind.  We’re worried about nukes in North Korea and migrants and whose lives matter and climate change and asteroids that have a 0.001% chance of hitting the Earth (oh, but if one would…).

We live in fear of either short-changing or over-pressuring our children. We’re anxious about our weight, appearance and fashion sense. None of us wants to be greeted by our friends with “you look tired”.

The welcome respite of Shabbos allows us to sleep more (maybe even the amount we should sleep nightly), laugh with our families and escape The Screen. But, it doesn’t turn off the voices in our heads.

We may shut off our phones, but our Friday night table-talk centres on all of the screen-themes that we dutifully shut off at sunset on Friday. We may pause our to-do list, but new items that belong there pop into our heads throughout the Shabbos rest-day.

And, so, we return to the work-week from our Shabbos respite, feeling that we hadn’t had much respite at all.

Here’s what we’re missing: Shabbos is not a slice of time, it is a state of mind.

Shabbos is not a slice of time, it is a state of mind.

The Midrash says that each day of the week has a partner, except for Shabbos. Rather than a corresponding day of the week, G-d chose the Jewish People as the partner to Shabbos. (Bereishis Rabba 11:8)  Sounds sweet, but it’s quite deep. Shabbos is not one part of Jewish observance; it is what Jews are all about. Like those Talmudic sages who spent every weekday gearing up for Shabbos, a Jew is meant to keep Shabbos as a daily focus. Once we get what Shabbos represents, and we plug it into it 24/7, we’ll learn to not only rejuvenate once a week, but to generally remain stress-free.

On Shabbos, you are meant to feel that all your work is done (Pesikta Zutrasa). None of us ever arrives at Shabbos feeling that all our work is done. On hold, maybe, but never done. We’re thinking about what we will need to tackle first, the minute Shabbos is over. We may feel relieved to ignore our emails until Saturday night, but we may feel just as anxious about how they’re piling up in out inbox.

“My work is done” is not only a Shabbos mentality, it’s meant to be a Jew’s over-arching worldview. Yes, we have work to do. No, we are never entitled to sit back and let fate take its course. Hence, the term “work”. But, our work is only part of the tapestry. We may plan to leave early enough to reach an appointment on time (our work), only to hit unexpected traffic en route (not our work). We invest our best efforts to bring up decent children (our work), but can’t control the people they meet, the role models who disappoint them or the curve-balls that life throws them (not our work).

Stress happens when we imagine that it’s all “our work”; that we dare not rest until we have attained perfection. Judaism teaches us that when our work ends, G-d’s work begins. As long as we do ours as we should, He does His. We work six days, He blesses our work on the seventh.

Shabbos isn’t a magic time when we step off the hamster wheel, to return to the week with our problems resolved. Shabbos is the apex of how Jews are meant to think always – G-d runs everything outside of what He has entrusted to me, and I need to have a healthy and objective view of what He has entrusted to me.

As long as those voices of anxiety or self-doubt rage in our minds, Shabbos can’t cure our stress. When we train ourselves to have one overriding voice in our heads, we can rest and rejuvenate again. And that voice needs to say, “I have work to do. I will never perform  perfectly, but I’m not expected to. As long as I do my best, I can trust that G-d will carry me to success.”

With that mindset, Shabbos moves from my calendar into my consciousness, bringing me shades of Shabbos all week and real respite on that holy day.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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