(This article originally appeared at OnFaith here.)
In January 2012, I was blessed to take a ten-day trip to Israel, and our tour group spent the Sabbath in Jerusalem.
On the way to our hotel on Friday evening (the beginning of the seventh day), our Jewish tour guide said, “Let’s turn on some Sabbath music.” I expected a dirge, something completely depressing, something that said, “Thou may no longer buy beer for 24 hours.” That was not, however, the music that fit the mood.
He turned on the tour bus radio, and the song began, “Da da da da da, Start spreadin’ the news.” It was Sinatra. Not exactly what I expected, and that was excellent. He explained, “On the Sabbath, we listen to relaxing music.” On that day at least, Sabbath music in Jerusalem was Rat Pack music.
He clarified further that Sabbath means “to stop, to cease.” It means to stop working and enjoy life without work for one day each week. He told us that he was going to go home, light candles, and enjoy dinner with his family. His kids and grandkids were coming over for dinner. They would say Sabbath prayers, talk about their week, play games, and have fun. His definition of the Sabbath is a day to enjoy life with your loved ones.
When we got back to our hotel, we discovered that a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews had rented a ballroom with their families and were dancing and partying on the Sabbath. This wasn’t what observing the Sabbath looked like where I grew up in Ohio. When they were done, the hotel looked like Def Leppard had trashed the place.
In Jerusalem, the Sabbath is a weekly vacation day— a fun, relaxing, 24-hour celebration with the people you love. It’s not observed out of a sense of duty so much as it is anticipated and enjoyed. This makes sense for Christians too. In Mark 2:27, Jesus says, “Humanity wasn’t made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of humanity.”
Once or twice a week, my four-year old son and I walk to our mailbox to get the mail together. In our subdivision, our mailbox is about 200 yards down the street. If I walk to get the mail alone it takes me five minutes. When my son and I go together, it takes four times that long.
Our neighbors have some bushes next to the sidewalk. So, my son takes a few steps out of our yard, and then he stops to smell the bushes. There are no roses on the bushes. They’re just bushes, but he stops to smell them. Then we take a few more steps, and he stops to crouch down to watch some ants walk across the sidewalk. Then he takes a few more steps until he hears a birdie. He stops to listen for where the birdie is, and then he watches the birdie. Then we take a few more steps, and he hears a doggie bark. He stops to see where the doggie is. He explains to me that “Doggies say ‘woof woof.'” Then we take a few more steps, and so on.
Now that he’s four, he wants to “explore” the culvert where water runs off the street and into the rocks. We walk along the rocks and watch for bugs. Taking a few steps off the street magically turns us both into Indiana Jones.
He is absolutely filled with wonder, and he starts and stops according to whatever interests him. Then, eventually, after stopping and starting several times, somewhere along that fun, wonder-and-awe-filled journey… we get the mail.
Children do what comes naturally to humans. What if it really is hardwired into the human brain to live according to a rhythm, a rhythm of working and then stopping, and then working and then stopping?
We have lots of sayings to express this. We say, “The joy is in the journey” or “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” or “Take time to smell the roses.” I read an article recently finding that employees who have a little bit of downtime in their day are more productive. Go figure. We all know we need more rest.
Many people in our workaholic culture feel like soulless machines, pressured to stay late and expected to not take all of their vacation. That’s not what it means to be human. Sabbath means that you can take control of your life and live life to the fullest, not as a production line machine, but as a real live human being. The Sabbath empowers you to be more than your job and more than money.
So, let me ask you, are you overly busy, trying to accomplish more than you’re physically or emotionally able to do? Are you spending more time at work than what is healthy for your family? Are you a people pleaser, over-committing by saying yes when you should say no? How good would it feel to stop, and take a vacation day once per week?
That is the primary meaning of the first creation story in Genesis:
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. ”
The two creation accounts of Genesis do not explain the scientific origin of the universe, but they do convey a world of wisdom, wisdom that continually coaxes our evolution into more whole creatures.
The seven-day creation poem was likely inspired by parents trying to teach their children why they observe a weekly Sabbath day. Egyptians had a 10-day week. The Babylonians may have observed a monthly Sabbath on the new moon. Israelite parents had to explain to their kids why their schedule was different than everyone else’s.
Do you weekly remind your children to stop and enjoy life and each other? Sometimes a health problem tells us that it’s time to live a more balanced life. Sometimes our time-starved families remind us. Sometimes, in our more reflective moments, we clearly see the truth expressed by Frederick Buechner, “There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.”
Maybe this blog post is another reminder that you have nothing to prove. As we read in Genesis 1, you’re created in the image and likeness of God. You have dignity and worth because of that, alone, before you lift a finger do any work. Our Creator has given us a rhythm for experiencing the good life, a rhythm of working and resting, working and resting, working and resting. We’re created to be more than machines.
The Sabbath gives you permission to be human.