There was a movie that came out this year about the Winchester Mystery House, based on the sad but true story of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. She wanted to build a sanctuary from the demons that haunted her after the deaths of her infant daughter and husband. She already lived in a large mansion, but it wasn’t enough. She hired construction workers to work around the clock. Every single day. She worked them constantly, haphazardly, obsessively, for 38 years — until the day she died. Her original home became a sprawling, monstrous behemoth, covering six acres, with 160 rooms, 2000 doors and 47 staircases, many of them leading to nowhere.
Sarah Winchester managed to outbuild Herod the Great with her sprawling palace, but without an architect, without a blueprint, she had built a travesty, not a temple.
I live in New York City, where we don’t have the luxury of building out rooms and staircases in our city apartments. But even if we could, I’m sure most of us would say, “I’d never build a home the way Sarah Winchester did.”
And yet, more and more, the Winchester House reflects the way that we build our lives. How many of us spend our days relentlessly building, renovating and improving: our resumes, our bodies, our careers? We do so relentlessly and continuously, sometimes obsessively and haphazardly.
I’m not going to suggest we stop striving to be better. We should try to earn that job promotion, train for our triathlons, and expand our minds with classes and lectures. These things are good and essential.
But if we have no blueprint for our time, if we do not stop to reflect on the ultimate purpose of all that building, we may wake up one day and realize we’ve built a life without a soul.
Judaism teaches us how to be the architect of our own time. The Jewish view of time is refreshingly countercultural. In today’s culture, our most common understanding of time is in terms of Productivity. Accomplishment. “Time is Money.” But Judaism does not judge time like this. Judaism divides time into two distinct categories: the sacred and the ordinary.
In ordinary time, we go to our jobs, do homework, do the dishes, tone our triceps, do volunteer work. We are encouraged to busy ourselves with the important work that enables us to be fed and sustained, healthy and constantly growing.
But sacred time is completely different. Sacred time is designed to slow us down, to make us fully present, to enable us to see ourselves and the world around us as Whole.
Sacred time is a time to just be.
Holy time certainly includes our annual sacred holidays. But our tradition also understood that we needed a regular practice of sacred time in our lives—our ancestors called it Shabbat. There is a time for building–but there is also a time to STOP. Shabbat was a radical and beautiful innovation our ancestors brought to humanity. We are not meant to build and create and work, day in and day out. Shabbat is how we build what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called our “sanctuary in time.”
Building a sanctuary in time doesn’t just happen. Ironically, rest requires purposeful action. An active release of the hammering and sawing, the noise and competition, the desire for more stuff over the basic human need for more meaning.
So, here’s the blueprint: Create and build, renovate and improve for six days, but then, one day a week—create a true Shabbat. Forbid the desiring and considering of what is missing. Allow yourself to feel satisfied with who and what you are, without trying to improve it.
Be the architect of your days and create your Sanctuary in time.
How might you do that? It doesn’t have to be in the traditional ways of Shabbat observance, although there is real wisdom in those boundaries of no traveling, no electronics, no spending money. Try unplugging for a day. My family does that–no phones, TV or computers for 24 hours. I promise you if you do only that–it can be life-changing. Try making a Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. Or family game time on Saturdays. Something that helps you be fully present with the people you love.
You might not be an observant Jew. You might not be Jewish at all. But this radical notion of Sabbath–that every creature deserves a weekly day of rest–is for everyone. And it is more relevant than ever before. Is there anything more fundamentally important today than how we design our time?
What is at stake here is not just our sanity. It is our very humanity. Sarah Winchester lost her humanity in the relentless, daily building of her house. The building project with no end. She never understood the purpose for which she was constructing and expanding. She did not know how to sanctify her time.
Judaism urges us not to construct our lives this way. It gives us a Sabbath blueprint for our most important building project–which is constructing a life rich in meaning and purpose.