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Sacred Time Connections | September 29, 2019

Rabbi Laura J. Abrasley

“Disconnect to Reconnect.” (1) The tagline caught my attention. I clicked onto the website, and there it was, a getaway called The Digital Detox Retreat. Big bold letters frame a picture of people chatting with one another in a beautiful forest, nary a smart phone in sight. I scrolled down to learn more, blissfully unaware of the irony: there I was imagining a screen-free weekend, but I had to surf the internet to do it.

The questions on the site intrigued me.

  • When was the last time you went 48 hours without responding to email, checking Facebook or answering your phone?
  • Have you ever given yourself the space and time you need to reflect, decompress or relax?
  • Do you find yourself reaching for your device in any moment of down-time?
  • Do you sleep, eat or use the bathroom with your phone

The Digital Detox Retreat is apparently the hottest vacation around. (2) There’s a long waiting list to go to a remote locale where people turn off all of their technology. The expensive amenities begin in the negative: NO wifi, NO phones, NO internet. But wow, the benefits promised are priceless: a return of balance, enhanced creativity, improved sleep.

Sounds amazing, right? A stress-free stretch of time filled with good food and conversation, long walks with loved ones and an opportunity to empty one’s head of the noise we carry around most days. It sounds like the best vacation I could ever plan.

And the one I always forget to take.

In truth, it sounds like Shabbat, Judaism’s weekly reminder to disconnect from the world of “doing” in order to reconnect to the sacred opportunity of just being.

Shabbat is one of Judaism’s greatest creations. It is the cornerstone of the Jewish understanding of holy time, the most basic of sacred building blocks.

Six days of work, one day of rest; six days of mundane, one day of holy. Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. Now radically slow down. Let your equilibrium return.

We can see this remarkable design of time in the creation story. God uses six days to structure light and darkness, heaven and earth, animals and humans. These six days provide a template for how to best live out our days, our seasons, our lives. It is in this story of creation that we find the origins of holy time, the beginnings of sacred rest.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing,

וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה

and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy ...(3)

These verses demonstrate the causal relationship between ‘lishbot – to cease/stop and l’kadesh – to sanctify/to make holy.” God creates. God deems the creations, including the creation of humanity, “very good.” But God doesn’t call them holy. In the period when God rests, that is when holiness begins.

Later in the book of Exodus, we learn how we, too, can achieve the type of holiness God reveals in Genesis.

וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם׃

The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat for all generations as a covenant for all time: (4)

We promise God that we, too, will “stop” from creating every seventh day. This resting is a sign of the sacred relationship we make with God. Just as rest restores God, we, too, shall be refreshed when we create the holy time our bodies and souls and minds deserve.

It turns out, however, that humans, especially modern types like ourselves, do not like to stop. We especially do not like to stop and examine ourselves and our lives. Because there is the chance that if we stop to take a good, long look at ourselves, we might see something we don’t like, something that makes us uncomfortable.

And who wants that? I know I don’t like it very much. But I do like the results.

And everyone knows you cannot get results without effort, without work. But did you also know results require rest?

Take, for example, exercise. My favorite these days is a strategy called HIIT (high intensity interval training). I have a love/hate relationship with this type of exercise. It’s over quickly, but it hurts just as much every single time.

When I asked my trainer if I should work out more often, she gently explained that rest days are just as important as the all-out effort I give in the gym. As my muscles change, they need time to repair, to refresh themselves. Apparently, it’s in the resting that I build strength and resilience.

I believe spiritual growth works in a similar way. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great contemporary rabbi and a genuine sage when it came to holy time, taught the primary idea that Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. (5)

Sanctification is a very big word for a remarkably simple concept. To sanctify time is to set it apart for special use. These hours then transform from ordinary into extraordinary, from mundane to holy.

For Judaism there is no greater transformation of time from mundane to holy than the practice of Shabbat. The rabbis teach that we are gifted an extra soul on Shabbat. God loans us an extra helping of soulfulness so that we may experience more of Shabbat. More quiet. More breath. More being.

But I suspect many of us use our extra Shabbat soul for purposes other than breathing and being. We live in a busy, busy, busy world. Extra soul? Sounds lovely, but honestly who has time for Shabbat? I simply do not have time to sit around and do nothing.

But “the nothing,” at least according to Judaism, is where we truly begin to experience the sacred. Shabbat is the point, the pinnacle of life. It is what we strive towards. Rabbi Heschel captures this idea perfectly. “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.” (6)

Heschel points us towards our true north, reminding us that time is our most precious gift. The point of our lives is not more work, more success, more doing. Instead, the “climax of living” happens when we cease our pursuit of “more.”

But how? What are the ways in which we can attach ourselves to holy time?

Luckily, Jewish practice is full of sacred stopping moments - ones we can use every day, every week and every year.  I’d like to remind you of three the Jewish people have been using for centuries.

Reminder number one. Think about the last time you took a walk or hiked up to see a beautiful vista. When you reached your destination, did you simply turn back around? I suspect not.

I imagine that, like me, you created a space for yourself to enjoy the view. You stopped and really looked around.

Judaism has this stopping and looking around built into our daily prayers. One of our prayers is perfect for these moments, a prayer called the Amidah, a set of blessings known as the central moment in every Jewish worship service.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand the Amidah as the Jewish mountaintop moment. Designed to be recited individually or communally, it is the prayer equivalent of catching your breath after climbing a moment. And yes, I did just say moment. We are “encouraged” to experience this sacred stopping moment three times a day, wherever we find ourselves.

And while words matter in our prayers, the origins of the Amidah suggest creativity is encouraged. Perhaps this is due to an early rabbinic resistance to a completely fixed liturgy. And once the liturgy was fixed, the rabbis still wanted the freedom to add on private personal meditations. To me, this suggests you can use whatever words you want. Or no words at all. Just your breath or the miraculous sound of your beating heart.

I’ve already mentioned Shabbat, Judaism’s weekly opportunity to rest and recalibrate. This ancient version of unplugging requires no cell phone lockbox. Rather it demands we reset our focus for 25 hours and attempt to achieve one simple concept, the idea of Shabbat Shalom. Understanding the words will help illuminate the path.

Begin with the word Shabbat. The root of this word - formed by the Hebrew letters shin, bet and tav - creates the basis for a word that is best translated as “to stop, to cease.” Shabbat equals stopping.

Continue with shalom, a word many of us learn as children that means “hello, good bye and peace.” But if we take a deeper dive into shalom’s root letters (shin, lamed, mem) we see our childhood words leave out the most essential idea. Shin, lamed and mem also construct the word shalem, which, at its heart, means “wholeness.”

Taken together the promise of Shabbat Shalom is what so many of us long for: an entire day to stop doing. A few precious hours to rediscover our whole self, our holy self. Give yourself this gift or maybe just a few hours of this gift, once a week. Lose yourself in a good book . Talk to your spouse or children about big ideas. Sit in your yard, and watch the clouds pass by. While I cannot promise you will feel holy after you experience this gift of Shabbat, I do think you will feel more whole.

My last reminder of Jewish sacred time begins tonight with Rosh Hashanah, the opening of our Jewish calendar. Many understand this day as the birthday of the world for, according to Jewish tradition, the world was created today, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

We call the 10 days that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. This period of holy introspection and return begins tonight and culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We sanctify this time when stop to meditate on our lives, to consider our actions during the past year, how we have succeeded and how we might have failed, who we have been and who we long to be.

Perhaps this season of return and contemplation is another version of this digital detox vacation I’m so enamored by. A longer stop to rest and revitalize our spiritual selves. A call to carve out a sacred retreat every year and create a space for us to recalibrate our souls. We clear out the challenges from the previous year, consider the ways in which we place obstacles in front of ourselves and others and renew our promise to be a better version of ourselves in the coming year.

So, let us begin our turn tonight towards sacred time in our beautiful new sacred space.

Let us turn our attention away from the things that distract and deter us towards ideas that inspire and transform us.

Let us turn to face both the messiness and the magic of being human and seek to repair relationships with those we have hurt and who have hurt us.

Let us turn and return to caring for our bodies, our minds and our souls with the gentle reminder that rest is central to our success as even as we work diligently towards our human and our heavenly pursuits.

And let us turn to embrace the idea that sacred moments make us whole, and holy, as we turn to the new year with the knowledge that once a day, once a week, once a year it’s good to take a break from our endless climb up life’s mountain and simply enjoy the view.


(2) “The Ultimate Luxury Vacation: Doing Nothing in the Middle of Nowhere” The Wall Street Journal - online edition.. Ellen Gamerman. July 29, 2019.

(3) Genesis 2:2-3a

(4) Exodus 31:16

(5) The Sabbath. Abraham Joshua Heschel. page 8

(6) The Sabbath. Abraham Joshua Heschel. page 14

Mon, May 27 2024 19 Iyar 5784