What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies, from Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)
I walked through the woods near my home yesterday, so busy that I did not even notice the trees around me. The birds were singing at full throttle and nature was wearing its greenest robes, but I was too busy thinking about emails that had to be written, discussions to be had. I had deliberately chosen the route in order to enjoy the walk, to get some fresh air and to let my brain unwind. To just stop and stare. But we are so conditioned always to be planning, anticipating the next event, checking that we are not missing out on anything, that often we don’t look around us.
But what is life if we do not notice it, if we do not take time to stop? The biblical writers and the Rabbis knew that it is too easy just to work and take no notice of our surroundings, so they gave us different kinds of markers; some of them happen only once a year to mark the seasons, others happen regularly to mark the week, like Shabbat. Our lives are punctuated by different time measures as well: evening and morning, the eighth day for brit milah, the thirteenth year of a teenager becoming responsible, the days of a wedding celebration, the year of mourning.
Parashat Emor, which we read last week, is all about time, about measuring it, marking it, setting down firm signs in order to carve out some space in the eternal flow of life. We are told when to keep the different festivals, when to eat matzah and when to blow the shofar, to work six days but then mark the seventh by resting and making it sacred Lev. 23:3).
Parashat Behar also measures time in relation to Shabbat: the weekly Shabbat, the sabbatical or shemitah year every seven years, and the jubilee year, every seven sabbatical years.
“That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth directly from the field” (Lev. 25.11–12). The concept of rest is here extended to include the land as well; however it is the jubilee, the measure of time, that is sacred, not the fallow land itself.
What then does it mean to make time sacred? Kadosh, translated ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’, is an elusive concept. It means to set something aside, to make it special for a single purpose. As Progressive Jews we have rejected the traditional ways of honouring sacred time and how to observe it, and instead each one of us decides for ourselves how to relate to it. The weekly Shabbat is the most common form of rest that we try to make special. But in between family visits, lunch with friends, birthday parties and gym sessions it can be difficult to make Shabbat different from the rest of the week. Or for those who are retired or lead a less hectic lifestyle Shabbat can also disappear if there is not a clear sense of separation from the rest of the week.
The shemitah year exists in Europe mainly in relation to work, for those lucky ones who can take a sabbatical, or for those who have recently graduated. One might argue that the gap year is a form of a shemitah year, as it ends six years of study in the secondary school system. Retirement, whether it follows the old Labour rules or the new Conservative ones, then comes close to being the jubilee year after a full working life.
But a sabbatical, a gap year or retirement does not necessarily mean that people rest for a year. Rather as revealed by the many photographs and travel emails that we get from those who are having ‘sacred time out’, these time periods are full of new experiences and adventures. However, just because the land lay fallow does not mean that the farmer lay fallow as well. The farmer turned his or her attention to other things, and let the land rejuvenate itself. So too these shemitah years are a form of turning out attention to something else, and letting certain parts of our lives and brains lay fallow.
But shemitah only comes about every seven years, and therefore the weekly shabbat becomes our most priced form of sacred time.
I did not grow up with shabbat as a day of rest. I grew up with it as a family day, a day with no work but a time when you could get done all the other things you did not have time for during the school week. I thought that my first taste of shabbat as a proper day of rest was in Israel, but having moved to England where everything is open on Sundays I realised that actually most Sundays in Denmark are a bit shabbes-like. Some cafes are open, but all shops and supermarkets are closed. There are fewer cars on the roads, and you see many more people biking or walking. Sundays are family days or spent with friends. Moving to London was therefore a bit of a shock, but a delightful one, at least in the beginning. When I return home I usually forget about the Sunday closing hours and find it infuriating that I cannot just go shopping when I feel like it. But that feeling only lasts a short while, as then I marvel at how less stressed Danes are than Brits. I marvel at the ease with which many Danes balance their work and private lives.
So when on Friday I spoke to a friend in Jerusalem who was about to get ready for Shabbat I envied her. Not just the reliably good weather or the food but the calm that falls over Jerusalem on Friday afternoons and Saturdays. However, this feeling was immediately followed by a sense of dismay at the way this is produced and imposed on people living there. So how do we balance the importance of creating communal rest versus the personal freedom of making Shabbat in whatever way we choose? How do we create space in time without forcing it on people?
As Liberal Jews we do not require Shabbat observance, we encourage it and we desire it. We try to develop a sense of the holiness of time but do not set rules on how to structure it. So how do we create time out of time, to know that in these 25 hours we do not have to be productive, sort out the house, or do the shopping? How do we, for ourselves, make Shabbat special? How do we make it a communal rest, or a sacred time for everyone?
I do certainly not propose that we move Shabbat to Sundays nor create special Saturday opening hours. What is important is to recognise the constant challenge that we are faced with as Progressive Jews. Wanting both Shabbat as a day of rest but also lazy Sundays means that for most of us neither of these days are really restful, because of all the jobs we need to do over the weekend. In the end the choice seems to be that we either struggle each weekend with all the things that we do or we make a very clear and difficult decision to choose which is the day of rest and which is the day of doing. In the end each weekend most of us end up making compromises. This can leave us feeling guilty or that we never have a ‘proper’ Shabbat. Could we decide to put off some of the weekend jobs until Sunday and instead spend the luxurious Shabbat afternoon hours doing what we really enjoy doing and not worry about what is next on the list?
I know this is a challenge, especially when there are other people involved in addition to yourself. When the needs of partners, parents or children quadruple the tasks, the importance of those precious hours seems to shrink exponentially. But realising the need for space and time together, could Shabbat afternoon become a time for us to reverse Davies’ poem and ensure that we indeed have been given a sacred time ‘to stop and stare’?
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.