Sabbath Reboot

We were recently contacted by someone who had read an article by Mardi Tindal in the The United Church Observer — a United Church publication. The article was about our New Sabbath Project — the weekly practice of breaking bread and building community, one meal at a time and also the spinoffs such as this blog, our work with a Kenyan Pastor who approached us after seeing our blog and our radio show on CIUT. We appreciated hearing from this reader because it reminded us that we really must return to this beautiful weekly ritual. In truth, we have had such an overwhelmingly busy year that some of the most important things we do for both our physical, spiritual and mental health, took a back seat to other demands. The Sabbath ritual is one we hope others will adopt and adapt to strengthen their communal and family lives. Maybe the year would have been easier for us if we shared the joy and a little bit of prep and hosting duties with a deeper network of sabbatical fellow travelers. Sharing helps.

We thought we would share Mardi Tindal’s article (link is also above) with you. Enjoy and feel free to respond and share on our site and theirs.

Soul Work
The invitation: Mark Sabbath in your life

By Mardi Tindal

Thomas Merton provocatively described activism and overwork as “a pervasive form of contemporary violence.”

In the book Sabbath, author Wayne Muller quotes the 20th-century monk and then prescribes Sabbath time as a means of healing from this violence. “Sabbath,” he writes, “is more than the absence of work. . . . It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true . . . honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.”

Whether or not you think of your busy life as a form of violence, we all need to take time for reflection and to honour the perspective it brings.

Jewish friends have taught me much about the spiritual practice of Sabbath. Friday evening’s Shabbat meal (itself the model for the Christian eucharist, or communion) marks a day of rest, remembers God’s creation and looks forward to God’s shalom.

My own family for generations has enjoyed a tradition of Sunday dinners — not a formal liturgy, but gathering, pausing, giving thanks.

Sabbath traditions are more complicated these days. Our families aren’t all within easy reach, and many embrace differing traditions. How then to practise Sabbath?

Ralph Benmergui and Cortney Pasternak, two communication professionals raising their children with respect for his Jewish spirituality and her humanist values, decided to renew the ancient tradition within their busy lives. Their New Sabbath Project involves inviting people to share a Friday-evening meal and a blessing. It’s a practice they describe as “breaking bread and growing community.”

“We have to build spiritual bridges toward each other, between people who love each other and people who don’t know each other,” Benmergui explains in a recent conversation. “Having a meal together is creating a community one meal at a time.”

The practice is an informal reflection of the traditional Shabbat meal. It begins with lighting candles and sharing wine and bread. Then Benmergui and Pasternak invite their guests to offer blessings. “Whatever blessing you want,” says Benmergui. “Just say it. I don’t care if you’re blessing your goldfish.”

Of course, no one takes the invitation lightly. And their reactions testify to how deeply we need these opportunities.

“We saw the relief in them — that they could do something sacred, just that simply,” Benmergui observes. One guest turned to his spouse and said, “I just want to bless my wife, because we’ve been so busy lately, and I just want her to know how much I love and appreciate her.” The wife was almost in tears, and Benmergui realized, “This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t hard to do.”

Following a Sabbath practice allows for “a sacred space to be created, a container in which we can locate the love and the unity that’s actually present every moment anyway,” he says. “It’s sort of like when there’s a blackout. You kind of wish there were more of them (in warm weather, for a few hours every week), because everybody talks to their neighbour and nobody has a machine to look at, and you really feel your presence on the Earth. It’s kind of awkward, but it’s kind of beautiful. So there’s a way of doing that.”

Benmergui and Pasternak have offered a guide to creating your own Sabbath project on their website, They were delighted to hear from a Masai tribesman who’s also a Christian missionary. He came across their guide and has been holding Shabbat dinners in his Kenyan village ever since.

There is no one right way, they emphasize, to experience Sabbath. Which leads to the question: what are your Sabbath practices?

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.

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Sabbath Practice as Political Resistance? What a Concept…For All of Us!

I ran into a couple of people this past week for the first time since the seasonal holidays began in December. I had assumed these people were “away” on holiday over those few quiet weeks. After all, they were “out of office” and out of reach. I imagined that these friends and acquaintances were off galavanting somewhere exciting or warm or both — enjoying a change of scenery. But no. As it turns out, these high functioning, super-engaged people were just taking a breath — coming up for air — absolutely exhausted by the frenetic pace of work that permits next to no time to recharge and heaven forbid – reflect. Instead keeping it all going with a big, public smile for fear of being pegged as “not quite up to it” or a “slacker“. One particular public figure, who professes to enjoy his work, lamented quite publicly that he simply could not find a way to incorporate such “breaks” or what we here call “sabbatical” into his life more regularly — but that he wishes he could. He is not alone. We, in Western society now take our lack of work-life balance — our inability to find or better yet make time to stop, rest, relax and reflect – as a given — an inevitability. We just don’t know how to wiggle out of this deep mess we’re caught up in — and our physical and mental health as well as our families are paying the price. But what if we looked at self-imposed, regular sabbatical from all things work, as a form of liberation instead of chains that tie us down?

American writer, preacher and activist Ana Levy-Lyons weighs in on the issue, comparing the weekly Jewish Sabbath Practice as “political resistance” in a recent Tikkun article. Levy-Lyons draws from Jewish Scholar and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Revolutionary Socialist and Philosopher Karl Marx to illustrate shared insights about “time” as the “ultimate form of human wealth” in our lives — showing that this idea of sabbatical transcends religious lines — crossing into the secular.

The problem she sees and I agree, is that in societies like ours, so-called “free time” is viewed as wasted time — a guilty pleasure even. I think we all have friends or colleagues (or maybe it’s us) who brag or laugh about skipping holiday time — worried in part about how it will appear to their bosses but also claiming that they are just too busy to make a holiday work. Further, as Levy-Lyons and many others have argued — far from freeing up our time, communication technology has had the opposite effect. She draws from Marx here writing “any surplus time created by labor-saving technology is immediately sucked back into the system to create more value — more money, more goods, more innovation”. Ever notice the times attached to some of those work related emails?

Imagine if, as she argues in refering to Heschel who said that precious time is stolen from us, the Sabbath is “a reestablishment of a primordial birthright…(For 25 hours once a week) We get to light candles, linger over meals, take aimless walks through town” and so on. How about just finding time to talk about things that matter? Engaging in community building or critical, creative forms of citizenship? We recently asked a progressive, Toronto area Rabbi why he thought our New Sabbath Project isn’t spreading more when people love the idea in principle and certainly love taking part. He explained that without buying into the idea of obligation, that it simply wasn’t sustainable. Talk to most secular people about the notion of obligation and the reaction won’t be a positive one. Who can blame them? Between the obligations (read demands) of work, paying bills and keeping up with housework and possibly family needs — who wants to add one more thing to the list?

How radical is the notion of reclaiming time? We’re not talking about simply the once or twice a year “holiday” or periodic unplugging — but a more regular (even ritualized?) and therefore purposeful or even conscious practice. Indeed Levy-Lyons writes that we must not confuse the idea of a weekly, ritualized sabbath (whatever that may look like to you) with simply a nice holiday away from work. The truth is we can’t wait for a revolution in the workplace to give us permission to make it happen — one that requires serious courage to change our outdated ideas about “work” and “productivity” and the impact of such notions on our families, our communities and our mental health. Heschel speaks about creating cathedrals of time and speaks of the ritual that accompanies obligation as the frame over which we can stretch the canvas of our lives. How we choose to fill that canvass is the challenge and opportunity that free will provides to us. Sabbath/Sabbatical/Shabbat – whatever you’re comfortable calling it –can be the seed that we plant from which community, reflection and connection can be nurtured and grown. Imagine creating a zone of personal prosperity – free of marketing, work in all it’s forms and (often mindless) consumption. Just 25 hours, just once a week, just to connect and give those we love and care for a chance to love us back.

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Sharing Circle, Dinner Circle-Guest Blog on New Sabbath Project

“As Leonard Cohen says you must build a fence around the sacred if you want to protect and nurture it in your life. Our New Sabbath Project is a step in that direction.” — Ralph Benmergui

This was how recent social innovator and community builder Craig Carter-Edwards recently began his guest blog for the New Sabbath Project. He was quoting Ralph who was paraphrasing Leonard Cohen from an interview he did with Cohen many years ago. We thank Craig for his contribution and we urge you to read his blog by clicking on the link above, visit his site, then visit ours. Please retweet and repost. Let’s build community and spread the word.

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Stop the Excuses — Just do it!

A really nice woman I’d never met walked up to Ralph and I on the street in another part of the city today as we were out on a small outing with our children. She told us she had been reading our blog and the article written about the New Sabbath Project and wanted to start one in her own home. We hear this a fair bit – and quite frankly are always pleasantly surprised since we never know who’s reading the site.

So back to this woman — she wanted to start a New Sabbath Project herself but hadn’t done it yet. What we heard from her is not uncommon. There was a hesitation around how to actually get started. What did we cook? Simple or complex? Did we really have total strangers come into our home? Did we really do it every Friday? In other words — “this all sounds really overwhelming and more than I can probably manage.” The result? Instead of just doing it — even sometimes — many of us end up NOT doing it — at all.

Following that conversation I decided to revisit the blog written for our site by guest blogger and writer Luke Murphy.

Luke uses the laws of physics to describe the difficulty associated with just getting something like this started — he writes …“it takes more effort to start something moving than to keep it moving.” He continues by writing “So it is with anything we do: the hard part is overcoming the inertia of an object at rest, which means getting off the couch and committing to the job. Once you’ve defeated the fridge-sized fire-breathing lizard that is the Coefficient of Static Friction, his cousin, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction, will seem like a sleepy gecko on a hot day.”

The New Sabbath Project is a community building exercise – simply by having people over for dinner — a few extras included of course that deepen the experience. I’ve had guests call it a salon and dialogue over dinner. It’s all accurate. Luke is right when he writes “putting on a dinner is one of those things like working out regularly…you know you ought to do it but today’s not ideal…Those excuses are the Coefficient of Static Friction sitting on your chest, his scaly haunches pressing you into the couch. Static Friction likes you to keep things theoretical, aspirational, potential – anything other than real. Static Friction cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or met half way. He has to be pushed aside and flung into the dark corner where you lost the battery cover for the remote. His greatest fear is action…When you know you need to put on a dinner – not a theoretical some-day-we-must dinner, but a real event with real people – the best first step is to email or phone your first choice of guests and ask them.”

I am thrilled to report he and his amazing partner Isabella have indeed begun hosting larger dinners and I’m equally thrilled he calls on others to do the same when he writes “Host a dinner. Invite a combination of friends and newcomers. Ask the guests to bring some food: it’s less work and less cost for you and gives them something to take pride in. Repeat, whenever you can.”

Finally, Luke writes and we concur: “One odd characteristic of the Coefficient of Static Friction: he gets lighter the more often you fling him off your chest.”

If you’d like to know how you or someone you know could host one without completely stressing out, get in touch and/or check out the website.

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Lose Your Watch on Your Next Holiday

There has been a lot written in recent years about the need to “unplug” on holiday and how to do it — and the fact that so few of us do it (present company included). I can say that I can generally avoid checking work emails on holidays but I stay connected for family matters. But I tried something different on the last two family vacations I had this past summer and I have to say, I think it had quite an impact on reducing both kid, daddy and mommy meltdown moments. I removed my watch — a big step for someone who lives a life ruled by time — some call it Type A personality — I actually think it’s a function of big city living combined with the perpetual struggle for work life balance. As a mother of two young children who must work out of the home, this is particularly true. You know — kids must be up by this time to get them to school by this time to make it to the office by this time to get home in time to have enough time to spend a little time before bedtime. Phew! No wonder so many of us are frazzled, stressed, time obsessed and usually burnt out by the time we take time for a holiday (and we know many Canadians don’t even take that time) or heaven forbid — a weekly sabbatical to reflect, recharge and rejuvenate, as we advocate in this site. I must say, that leaving my watch on the counter as opposed to my wrist during that time was incredibly liberating. Not only did my days feel less rushed with my family, it also somehow naturally reduced the sense of urgency around checking emails etc. Having no real sense of time helped us be more present instead of constantly wondering what we needed to do next — helped us build our fence around sacred space and time — something we know so few of us do at home in and/or with our own communities. Who knew? The trick is, can we or should we wean ourselves off the watch OFF holiday hours? Perhaps it’s worth a try.

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Taking Rest on the Road

We took the New Sabbath Project on the road over the last two weeks — well not intentionally — it’s just that we took a long overdue family vacation/sabbatical — time to rest, rejuvenate and reflect. We went on a driving tour of our marvelous country out to the east coast. On that trip we inadvertently introduced a version of New Sabbath to old friends that have understandably (as non-Jews) have never been introduced to the idea – even the pluralistic kind that we do.

We brought the food and asked my friend who is a wonderful baker to attempt my challah recipe (see photo below – fantastic). While we didn’t want to introduce the blessings as it wasn’t our home and they weren’t Jewish — my challah baker ended up asking for a blessing given a recent string of unfortunate events in her life — so we decided to try out a milder version of what we do at home.

A friend’s first time challah — for hosting a first time New Sabbath Project

In doing some personal blessings around the table — an uncomfortable “consciousness” practice for those unaccustomed to such things — we decided to explain why we did these Friday night gatherings/feasts as a community-building excercise in the first place. In talking about how disconnected and disengaged we felt we were from our neighbours — our communities — that we felt these dinners helped us engage our communities on a deeper level — dialogue over dinner — with a spiritual and/or religious and/or cultural component that somehow deepened the conversations. We figured the disconnect we feel was a function of big city living — but our friends who live in both rural and smaller urban settings said this was a problem in their communities as well. Quite simply, no one feels like getting to know each other or if they do, they’re too intimidated to make the first move.

These last two weeks have certainly been an amazing time for rest, rejuvenation and reflection for my family and myself. A time to reconnect to family and friends and also to ideas that often get lost in the fog of extensive to-do and to-pay lists that await at home. It has reinforced the idea that people everywhere are craving closer connections to their communities and a little more sacred space to allow for their own rest, rejuvenation and reflection.

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Finding Time to Rest and Be Grateful

At this week’s New Sabbath Project table, we decided to incorporate something different — something our friend who twinned with us a couple of week’s ago incorporated into her New Sabbath Project dinner. In addition to our blessings over candles, bread, wine, and our personal blessings around the table, we included a questions about gratefulness and gratitude. “What were we most grateful for in the past week?”

In a culture with communication devices that can keep us tied to the workplace around the clock — chipping away that sacred space around what could and arguably should be time for rest, rejuvenation and reflection, I’m embarrassed to say it was actually a little tough to come up with something I could identify at that moment — not because I hadn’t been grateful for things this week — but because I find we are so rarely “present” during so much of our daily living, that those moments — even the more challenging ones — that help us learn, grow and feel good often pass by too fast to remember and thus purposefully acknowledge.

It got me thinking more about the connections between gratitude, sabbatical and the impact the interaction of those two things have on our daily well being – both mentally and physically.

Positive psychologists and many others have written a fair bit on the correlation between gratitude and happiness for instance — that practicing gratitude through daily meditations for instance just help us feel better. I have tried this and have felt the effects. It’s a tough thing to keep up though I find because with full time work and 2 small children, it means carving out even more time to do something with intention — that doesn’t involve just stopping. The net effect unfortunately, is that such beautiful practices are the first things to go in a hectic, busy schedule — kind of like exercise. Funny — we then have to find ways to forgive ourselves for being too busy to take care of ourselves.

It made me think about what I recently read on a website I came across called “Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life”. Here, someone writes that “rest is a route to productivity. It’s a myth that we succeed through unceasing and tireless effort“. Yes, research does find that consistent and deliberate practice leads to elite performance in many fields. But focused work and consistent practice are not the same thing as unending work. Olympic athletes must rest or they get hurt. Fruit trees forced to produce for more than one season lose their ability to bear fruit. And us worker bees can slowly develop sleep debt so deep and burnout so profound that we are left too exhausted to function“.

On Rabbi and blogger Henry Glazer’s “Grateful Rabbi” blog site, he suggests we should think of the sabbath — whatever day that might be for you — as a day of gratefulness. What a great idea — and one so easy to forget if you never slow down to make it happen — to build a fence around that place in time.

In the end, I of course remembered something I was very grateful for this week. It was watching my older son — who has just this year learned to read — take my younger son onto his little lap and read him a bedtime story. How grateful I am to have that and to have witnessed the love these two brothers have for each other — easy to miss in the day to day where horse play and competition for parental affection and toys often blur those other fantastic memories.

The morning after an incredible night of making new friends around my dinner table, it’s also fair to say I am extremely grateful for the reminder that even short sabbaticals truly create the space to nurture so many good things — including the presence of mind to live more consciously — and to remember and reflect on the things for which we are grateful.

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Twinning the New Sabbath Project — The Best Export We’ve Got

Since beginning to blog, we’ve been hoping to expand our New Sabbath Project — sharing the best Jewish export — helping others to build a fence around the sacred — a weekly sabbatical from the 24-hour information highway and the working world that demands we stay tied to our technology both at the office and away. The sabbatical — no matter how short is meant to protect rest, reflection and rejuvenation. The idea is that through a weekly feast with members of your community to acknowledge and celebrate “being” instead of “doing”, be it with friends, neighbours or strangers who become friends, that we build community and citizenship because it is in this consciously restful and reflective state that we can find the place to share part of ourselves in a deeper way with our neighbours; we can talk more freely about the things that matter in life. We are pleased that aside from now expanding the New Sabbath Project to Kenya, we have now for the first time, twinned with another home in Toronto his week — with a friend originally from Vancouver now living in Toronto. No stranger to a weekly Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), she would be including different faiths at her dinner table — which is part of the pluralistic message of the New Sabbath Project. For us, we had an eclectic mix with non-Jewish Italians, East Coast Canadians mixed with Greek Orthodox, a Yemenite and a Jamaican Jew who had contacted us through our website and asked to join in — curious as to what we do here. While we welcomed them into our home, we were reminded that we cannot do this alone. And, it’s not enough to just stick to family or stick to “your own”. In an effort to truly build community, you must be willing to expand your borders, lower your barriers and open your home — no matter how small — to people you may not have considered before. We cannot keep hoping others will take the lead — we must take the lead ourselves, accept there is some work involved but also know that it is doable, manageable and totally rewarding as a social exercise. Without taking the leap — even once in a while — to build that fence around the sacred and open your home to members of your community, neighbours, co-workers — every day just rolls into the next and we continue by and large to ignore our neighbours and stay within a much smaller world. A huge thanks to Brianna for agreeing to twin with a pluralistic New Sabbath Project dinner. If you think you’d like to twin with us one Friday night, please contact us. We’ll be happy to help.

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Shabbat Goes Universal

Check out the article on the New Sabbath Project. Read our blog, then join us. Let’s celebrate our best export – on a pluralistic, progressive, inclusive level — breaking bread and growing community — one meal at a time.

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The New Sabbath Project…Could Go Global

Julius Lelmket, Rift Valley, Kenya - Twinning the New Sabbath Project with Toronto Canada

What do you get when you mix a Christian Maasai Minister, a Humanist and a practicing Jew? Actually we’re not sure yet but we have started down a path that may lead us all to a better place.

You see it seems that our has attracted the attention of Julius Lelmket — a Christian Minister from the rift valley in Kenya who has adapted our Friday night tradition to his locality while keeping the pluralistic and inclusive flavour that we hold so dear. We contribute a bit of money to make sure that Julius can lay out a bit of a feast for those who come to take part, in some cases from a fair distance, to join him and his family as they light candles, do blessings and share time together to talk about things that matter and create community — one meal at a time.

Resting and Drinking Tea At the Second New Sabbath Project Dinner

We are learning about Julius and his community and we are learning something about ourselves as well. I’ll be honest — at first we were a bit worried about engaging in a relationship with someone so far away who wanted to join in our project but needed a little monetary help. The idea activated all my middle class radar screens. Were we in a genuine relationship? Did others see us Westerners as mere dollar signs? Blah blah blah. What we realized by breathing through that nonsense was that Julius and his community were doing a wonderful thing – bringing in Christians and what he refers to as “non-believers” alike – into his home.

Julius, his wife and children have now hosted two New Sabbath dinners and have shared some wonderful rituals with us through our ongoing communication.

He writes ”Children were excited to be served with a delicious meals. Some of them are from poor families and eat only one meal a day. They rarely have drinks like tea in their homes”. He writes that his “community culture” has a specific way of sharing news and ideas. They call it “eating words” and this was conversation dominated their first New Sabbath Project. When adults meet, even if they are just traveling and therefore passing through. They have to stop, take some time and converse. They begin by asking, “How are your children? Then they extend that question to other people and finally to cows. By doing this Julius and his community find out how families are doing, both children and adults, what the weather and agricultural conditions are and the state of their cattle which are revered as sacred. They share valuable information on disease outbreak, war and community. Beats the hell out of “Hey, how’s it going?”

Candles serve as the local light source this NSP evening.

He tells us that after supper, one community elder blessed all the guests including the children. Since cow and milk is revered as sacred among the Maasai community, any blessing must involve the cow, ie: cow milk, cheese or cow or horn. The elder has to splash cow milk to people and says “Enkai(God),be ours, bless this people young and old alike, let all diseases leave them, their enemy’s weapon to be bland, give them peace prosperity. Let our cows multiply. Let their legs and hands be strong.
As the sun rises in the morning, bring hope to community the Maasai where there were. God be near to us and far to our enemies, who hates us and wish us bad omens. The food we eaten to give us health and strength, let this night be peaceful, Naa I!”

New Sabbath Project Supper

This unexpected connection with Julius is something that has made us realize that perhaps the next phase of our New Sabbath Project is to find and twin with communities all over the world and find others who will do the same. Encouraging people to gather and share food and ideas — building community one meal at a time.

Please let us know if you have any ideas of communities that we can reach out to — to help them create Friday nights where they too can build a fence around the sacred. Light some candles, say blessings to whatever or whomever you’d like as you go around the table but more importantly — know that you are sharing this space in time with others.

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