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
Opinion

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, newsabbathproject.com. 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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You say Shabbat — We say New Sabbath

A woman wrote to us recently. She was Moroccan like me and she was pointing out that though our newsabbathproject was admirable in it’s intent, she believed that a more orthodox approach — a Jewish orthodox approach was necessary.

There are those who believe that theirs is truly a divine code and format that, if followed to the letter with a kavanah (intention) will reap the most that the Sabbath has to offer.

I have often wondered, having come from a traditional home and having many orthodox relatives, what deepening of experience I could reap by unplugging completely for 25 hours every week. I, as a Green, have often imagined what benefit we could all gain by powering down and living more acoustically as it were. Imagine if we used almost no electricity, got out of our cars and focused our energies to what we can walk to, and who we connect with, in our community and our families for one out of every seven days.

All this to say that I appreciate what the purists version of Sabbath has to offer but I believe that that we as Jews have a golden opportunity not just to do Sabbath but to take it and offer a pluralistic, humanistic version of it to the world. An inclusive offering that helps us all to pause, reflect and engage with each other.

Something that has always concerned me about my own faith and observance as a progressive Jew is that we hold too jealously to our most precious attributes for survival and preservation of thousands
of years of collected wisdom. We can be stronger than that. Sabbath is our best export and we can gain strength by giving it away. I have never believed in a personal God that serves as overseer and life coach. Free will is what makes this journey so breathtaking — so profound.
Who are we are to say what “God’s will” is? Our business, it seems to me, is to become ourselves, to celebrate the universe and bow in humility to the creative force behind it
all.

Let us build community with everyone-one meal at a time.

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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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