By Jamison N. (Rated G)
“Technical civilization stems primarily from the desire of man to subdue and manage the forces of nature. The manufacture of tools, the art of spinning and farming, the building of houses, the craft of sailing–all this goes on in man’s spatial surroundings. The mind’s preoccupation with things of space affects, to this day, all activities of man. Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, within particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with the things of space, and the primary question is: Where is the god? There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
I first discovered Abraham Joshua Heschel accidentally in the Newman Center Library last year. I was intrigued that there was a book written by Christians, in a Catholic library, about a certain Jewish Rabbi who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and who contributed much to interfaith dialogue. Not long after, I found out that one of my friends studied Heschel quite a bit for his undergraduate degree, and happened to have a book to loan me. That is how it came about that I am reading through a book about the Sabbath during an international shutdown due to the COVID-19 virus.
The book is meant to be read slowly. It is not something to be rushed. As I sit and read, sometimes I fall asleep, sometimes I daydream. I’m experiencing the Sabbath. Not being a religious scholar, when I read I simply reflect about life, about current events. I think about the heroic efforts of others to save lives, the need to open up businesses and houses of worship, the race to find a cure. I feel lost and confused. I think about how these world events wedge their way into people’s thoughts. I reflect on the anxiety of people being rushed to and fro, from one news report to the next, towards the latest data, without time to think about what it means.
“The mind’s preoccupation with things of space affects, to this day, all activities of man.”
I am grateful for the work done by people to fight the virus, by leaders, first responders, and researchers, but we are only human, and I wonder whether we will succeed. When I look up into the night sky, at the moon and stars, I am reminded that there is more to life than this world we live in. I long for a well-ordered, perfect world like the clockwork precision of the motion of the stars and planets, and it is easy to blame mankind for the failures we see, the imperfection, the Fall. I believe there is a context where this is true, but this way of thinking does not always apply. Not wanting to get into the theology, I simply observe that the Sabbath can be a time to discover Grace, where we remember that we are not alone, and that God works with us as we try to do good. Sometimes, our idea of God as the author of perfection and order leads us to unrealistic expectations, leaving some serious, unanswered questions. Sometimes, we feel like we have to be more than ourselves to live up to these expectations.
It is tempting to believe that because we are only human, we must work hard to control this world the same way we believe God does. We’d better not mess it up, and when things don’t work out the way we expect, our sense of purpose breaks down. Psalm 8 explains wonderfully how God’s grace comes to the rescue when we feel hopeless:
“When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made, and see the moon and the stars, which you set in place, Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them? Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them? You made them a little less than the heavenly beings. You crowned mankind with honor and majesty. You appoint them to rule over your creation; you have placed everything under their authority, including all the sheep and cattle, as well as the wild animals, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea and everything that moves through the currents of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how magnificent is your reputation throughout the earth!” ~Psalm 8:3-9 NET
True, mankind is flawed, of little importance on a cosmic scale, but God crowns us with honor and majesty. This means that not only did God create us, He created us in His own image. According to Heschel, “When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time. When at Sinai the word of God was about to be voiced, a call for holiness in man was proclaimed: ‘Thou shalt be unto me a holy people.’” Christians affirm this call for holiness in people, and believe that Jesus came as man to take away the sins of the world.
“For we are God’s masterpiece, created in the Messiah Jesus to perform good actions that God prepared long ago to be our way of life.” ~Ephesians 2:10 ISV.
The work we do to help one another, especially in these times, is not doomed to failure, because God is involved. There may be times when we can’t see where God fits in the picture, but Heschel understood that not everything is about the question, where? God is not bound to a particular mountain, tree, or church building. God’s spirit isn’t dependent on whether we are succeeding or failing, on life or death, or whether life throws curve balls. The Sabbath teaches us that God simply is.
To Heschel, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time.” I believe Christians can participate in this wisdom as well. The Sabbath is a day of rest in order to break away from the realm of mankind. It is important to honor the Sabbath because we are spiritual. This world is a space to work and serve one another for six days a week, but on the seventh day, we remember to rest, to let God be in control. We make time to reflect that when God is in control, it may not mean that we live in certainty, but it is the reality that His spirit is ever present in our lives. During this time of shutdowns, it is my hope that more people, especially the overwhelmed, the busy, the tired, will begin to recognize the importance of Sabbath, that we cannot live by bread alone, and learn to rest in the spirit of God.