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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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

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

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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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The New Sabbath Equation – Guest Blog by Luke Murphy

Not many laws of physics can improve your life. This one can:

The coefficient of static friction is greater than the coefficient of dynamic friction.*

What this means is: it takes more effort to start something moving than to keep it moving.

If you’re pushing a car, the heart attack will come during those first furious shoves while you’re trying to make it start rolling. At that stage, your enemy is the coefficient of static friction. As soon as the wheels are turning, you can amble down the street, pushing the car before you while calling out cheery greetings to passers by. Why? Because now you’re working against dynamic friction, a puny force by comparison.

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. Coefficient of Static Friction

The New Sabbath Project is about building community by having people over for dinner. Putting on a dinner is one of those things like working out regularly, reading Moby Dick, or writing the blog post that you’ve promised: you know you ought to do it but today’s not ideal, maybe when the weather improves, we don’t have enough plates, etc etc. 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.

Any physical action will give you the strength to raise Static Friction’s leaden lizard loins from off your wheezing chest. 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. At that point, you can’t go back on it without faking a medical emergency, family tragedy or house fire, all of which will demand more effort than simply putting on a dinner. Yes, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction – gecko-sized cousin of Static Friction, you recall – will nip at your heels and make hissing noises, but Dynamic Friction is, contrary to his name, lazy by nature and easy to ignore.

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. Our heroic hosts Ralph and Cortney do this every week; you don’t have to.

And one odd characteristic of the Coefficient of Static Friction: he gets lighter the more often you fling him off your chest. That part is not explained by physics.
*It’s not actually a law, more of a rule of thumb. There are three laws related to friction, Amonton’s First and Second Laws and Coulomb’s Law. They state, more or less: (i) the heavier you are, the harder it is to get off the couch; (ii) it doesn’t matter whether you’re lying on the couch or have one buttock on the arm rest, you’re still stuck on the couch; and (iii) once you’ve got off the couch and started moving, it won’t get any harder (or easier) to keep moving.

Luke Murphy is a freelance writer, filmmaker, animator and designer. Born in West Berlin and brought up in Ireland, he currently lives in Toronto and works on documentaries, screenplays, and fiction.

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Knock Knock, Who’s There? Guest Blog By Award Winning Journalist and Author, Wendy Dennis

I met Ralph for the first time about a month ago, when a mutual friend connected us on a work matter. At some point during our conversation, he told me about the New Sabbath Project. It sounded interesting, so I asked how I might become involved. “We’re hoping people will hold their own dinners and invite people from their circle,” he said, “but you’re welcome to have dinner at our home any time.” Then he gave me the date of their next dinner, with the proviso that he’d confirm the invite after first checking with his wife Cortney about guest numbers and so

He did confirm, and that is how, a few weeks later, I found myself knocking on the door of the Benmergui-Pasternak home
in mid-town Toronto with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a container of ginger candied carrots in hand. (The only pre-dinner request was that I bring a bottle of wine and, if possible, “a side dish that goes with chicken”.) Bear in mind that when I stood on the porch of the B-P home that evening, I’d only known Ralph for about an hour and had never actually met Cortney. As it turned out, when I showed up at the door, she didn’t appear to have been expecting me. (For the record, Ralph insists he told her.)

I bring this up not to embarrass anybody or get in the middle of a divergence of marital opinion (or what may or may not have
been a breakdown in marital communications). We are, after all, talking about a couple who somehow manage to put together
regular Friday night dinners (to which they apparently invite complete strangers), despite holding two full-time jobs (and then some), parenting two little kids, and dealing with whatever else they have to deal with in their no doubt over-scheduled lives. (Ralph also has two big kids from a previous marriage so you can factor in that as well.)

Anyway, in spite of the glitch, Cortney graciously welcomed me, offered me wine, ushered me into the living room, sat me down in front of a plate of appetizers, which I immediately began inhaling, and made me feel totally at home.
Home is the operative word, because everything about Ralph and Cortney’s home and the evening that followed was immeasurably homey—or, as we Jews like to say—haimishe.

From the aromas that greeted me at the door and immediately transported me, madeleine-like, back to the Friday night dinners of my childhood, to the casual kid clutter and family photographs everywhere, to an actual real live kid named Emmanuel who was running around and greeting everybody, the ambience evoked a homey feeling at every turn.Soon the other guests arrived and the Proseco and conversation began to flow. Then we moved on to dinner, which began with blessings over the candles, wine and bread—the bread being Cortney’s home-made challah, and about which all I will say
IS this: once you tear off a chunk (and tearing off a chunk is the only way to eat it), you are willing to become a challah whore to get your hands on another.
Next, Ralph went around the table and asked each of us to offer a blessing for someone or something we felt moved to offer one for.

The blessings were simple and eloquent. Besides providing an insight about the person delivering it, each one
engendered a lovely sense of connection with that person. The food was plentiful, the meal amazing, the conversation
thoughtful and engaging and the atmosphere utterly unpretentious.
After the meal, Ralph asked each of us to express thanks for something for which we felt grateful that week, and so we went around the table once again. At this point, I feel I should mention that I am basically a heathen. What I mean by that is that while Jewish cultural traditions were a big part of my growing up years, unlike virtually all of my relatives and friends, my family didn’t belong to a synagogue, or attend one, even on the High Holidays. Nor did my siblings and I attend Hebrew school—unlike everyone else we knew. While I did grow up with Friday night dinners, by the time my own generation came of age, that ritual had mostly become a thing of the past, and I haven’t actually been to a Friday night dinner since, well, last century.

But there I was, sitting at a table and offering blessings in front of people I’d only just met (none of whom were Jewish, by the way, besides the hosts and me), and doing so seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to be doing. The naturalness of the experience, the feeling of being present in it, and the sense of connection and community it engendered in me, are something I really want to stress, because although I am deeply interested in the idea of connection—with myself, with those I love, with work that engages and inspires me, with larger social, cultural and political matters—I am not, by any means, a let’s-make-a-blessing sort of person. I actually recoil at anything with even the slightest whiff of formal religion or New Agey-ness or groupthink, and if I sense anyone trying to shove that sort of thing down my throat, or make me participate in a ritual that feels like a kumbaya moment, I basically start looking for the exits. Which is why the way I felt at Ralph and Cortney’s table is so significant.

The evening felt authentic in the best sense of that word. Not only did it serve as a truly pleasurable oasis at the end of a week of mostly just trying to get through (sound familiar?); the experience inspired me to think about how I might pay it forward. On a more selfish note, I’ve already had a coffee with a writer I met at the dinner who happens to live in my ‘hood and with whom it was helpful and fun to share writerly tips and preoccupations.

So I’m a fan of the New Sabbath Project. I think Ralph and Cortney are onto a pretty cool idea here, and heathen that I am, I’m delighted to have been asked to share in it.
–Wendy Dennis

Wendy Dennis is an award-winning journalist and author who writes for many leading publications, including The Walrus, Toronto Life, where she’s a contributing editor, and House and Home, where she writes a regular column about lifestyle trends.
She has also been a high school English teacher, instructor of magazine writing at Ryerson University, and editor at Toronto Life and Fashion magazines.

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