The Gift of Shabbat Is Tuning In

Shabbat observance takes many forms, from the strictly religious legal framework to creative contemporary celebrations. And it is truly an idea meant for everyone.

Image by Tomertu/ Getty Images

When I was a child in the 1970s, I received a transistor radio as a birthday gift one year. The little box came with AM and FM dials and an earpiece that plugged in to a jack on the side. With it, I could listen to music of all kinds. But what I treasured most was tuning in to the voice of the great sportscaster Ernie Harwell describing in detail the games of my hometown baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. Ernie’s soothing voice is etched into my memory, but just as vividly I remember the tactile experience of turning those dials to tune in to each station. If I had just the right touch, the loud, grating static that occupied the space between frequencies would gradually give way to a smooth, clear signal and the comforting tones of a legendary announcer describing a lazy summer evening game.

Today, in the digital age, we’ve lost that experience. Satellite radio, cable TV, and the internet provide instantaneous and nearly infinite entertainment. But they have masked the tuning process; we have been trained to believe that the signal is smooth, constant, and uninterrupted. Yet at least those of us old enough to remember transistor radios know better: There is an underlying structure to radio waves, a meaningful distinction between the clear signals and the static.

And so it is with the pace and feel of our lives in the twenty-first century. The distinction between work and rest, creativity and reflection, ambition and humility, has been significantly blurred. We are taught to believe that we can be “on” 24/7 — always striving, always connected. We sense that there is a deeper rhythm to life, but the illusion of unbroken connectedness obscures it from us.

This illusion has taken us one step further from an awareness of the natural rhythm of the world. We are often so far removed from that natural rhythm that we don’t even realize how far out of synch with it we have fallen. We can no longer hear the static that reminds us to fine-tune our lives.

How might we recapture the frequency of that rhythm? How can we reclaim the meaning of the distinction between signal and noise?

The Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition that has evolved from it over the last 3000 years offer us one simple, profound tool to address this challenge: We call it Shabbat. The Sabbath day.

Shabbat is the greatest gift of the ancient Jewish people to human civilization. In its simplest form, Shabbat is a day set apart from the other days of the week, a day of cessation from work. In the place of striving and commerce, creativity and productivity, we are instructed simply to be: to rest, rejoice, be with family and friends, eat and drink for pleasure, talk about what really matters, sing, pray, and give thanks for our blessings. It is a radio frequency completely free of static, one where the music and the wisdom and the connectedness come through with crystal clarity.

The Bible brilliantly weaves the idea of Shabbat into its story of the creation of the world. God’s process, the book of Genesis teaches us, is not complete after six days of creating every aspect of the known world. Only following the seventh day, the day on which God ceases and rests, is the process complete. Shabbat, the “day off,” is not an extraneous feature of reality; it is embedded in the rhythm of the universe, such that its absence is a fracture in the cosmos. Ceaseless work is an affront to the natural order of things.

In the twenty-first century, in Western civilization, our lives have lost their connection to that clear radio frequency. There is too much interference, too much static, from capitalism, consumerism, technology, and mobility. We need a tool to help us tune up our lives and recapture the ancient rhythms of creation.

This section of Thrive Global will serve as a forum to explore the concept of Shabbat. We will explore the infinite manifestations of a simple and profound day to unplug and reconnect.

Shabbat observance takes many forms, from the strictly religious legal framework to creative contemporary celebrations. And it is truly an idea meant for everyone. Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible, which is often very concerned with the unique and distinct covenantal responsibilities of the Israelite tribe, explicitly includes the broader community in its mandate to celebrate Shabbat. Employees, guest sojourners, even cattle are to be granted a day of rest along with the Jewish household.

Shabbat is a gift to all of us. We need only unwrap that gift. Plug in the earpiece and turn the dials until you lock in to the frequency that sings your song of rest, joy, and beauty. Take 24 hours each week to disconnect from the static of the world and reconnect to the people you love, the activities and relationships that fill you up, and the ideas that feed your mind and soul. Not only will you come to treasure that respite from the daily onslaught of work and tech; you may find that the static of life begins to fade and the clear signal of a life well-lived comes through like a comforting voice on a cool summer night.

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