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.