I want to thank to Barbra, my dear friend and colleague, for initiating this special Shabbaton and for inviting me to honor the memory of her father, Lou, zikhrono livrakhah. I have a precious memory of Lou Wiener, sitting at the head of my Passover table, the first seder I ever conducted in my own home, nearly 20 years ago, enthusiastically adding his questions and stories to the mix. Later when I was a rabbinic student in Los Angeles, Lou brought me out one Friday night to his Reconstructionist congregation, the University Synagogue in Irvine, to share some embodied prayer and Torah. I’ll never forget the rabbi at the time, Arnie Rochlis, coming down from the bima to join me in dancing the crossing of the sea during mi khamokhah – the only member of the congregation who dared to get out of his seat! This weekend, Sunday, is also the yahrtzeit of my father, Leonard Elliot, Eliezer ben Shmuel Yitzkhak. So I dedicate my words tonight to memory of the fathers, Lou and Len, for all their support and love over the years; may your souls be dancing in the greatest joy and delight in the worlds beyond.
The title of this evening’s davar is “Shabbat, the Pause that Refreshes.” (long pause) So, since embodiment is my thing, I was thinking that for the davar this evening, we’d take about 15 minutes to embody that pause and see if it’s refreshing. But then I thought, well I came all this way from California, and I got my Sorel boots out of storage and everything, and that maybe you’d feel you weren’t getting your guest-scholar’s worth if I didn’t say something. So here are some words to go between the pauses.
A caveat: I won’t be saying anything that you don’t already know in your bones. “Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat,” we read in Parashat Yitro just two Shabbases ago, as we stood again with the Israelite people at Sinai, perceiving the aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Speakings. At that awesome, paradigm-shifting moment, Divine Voice doesn’t command, “Discover Shabbat!” “Do Shabbat!” but rather, “Remember Shabbat.” Remember what you already know, deep inside, and you make it holy.
So see if you resonate with this at all:
Modern times often cause us to go on automatic pilot, continually multitasking and busying our lives with digital stimulation, information overload, and schedules that stress our brains and overwhelm our lives. Finding time to pause amidst this chaos has become an urgent need few of us take time to satisfy…. take a deep breath and consider the neural reasons why we should slow ourselves down, balance our brain, and improve our connections with one another and with our self.
That’s a quote from Dr. Daniel Siegel’s Foreward to a book called Buddha’s Brain. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. He is also a meditator, and he’s doing pioneering work in the growing field of interpersonal neurobiology, researching how the physical state of our nervous systems affects the relational fields in which we live and influences everything from our intimate relationships to our culture, politics, and relationship with the earth.
Some identify the tsunami of information and stimulation that continually floods our lives, along with our sheer busyness, as the greatest spiritual and psychophysical challenges of our time, a major cultural climate change, for which our nervous systems and psyches are not evolutionarily prepared.
Shabbat, perhaps the core Jewish spiritual practice, dating back to biblical times, which mandates us to pause—to take a break every seventh day from our weekday occupations, to stop and smell the roses, as it were—can be seen as the ultimate Jewish wellness tool—a time to slow down, to unplug, to restore our jangled nerves to balance. How directly this ancient Jewish spiritual technology seems to respond to our very contemporary dilemma! It attests to a need, a desire, an aspiration, a sensibility that perhaps has always been present in the Jewish and the human experience—[sing] “va-yishbot ba-yom hashvi’i mi-kol m’lakhto asher asah—and on the seventh day, the Holy One ceased from all the work of doing and making…”
How amazing isn’t it, how prescient, that the great prophets, sages and mythmakers of our tradition channeled the image of the very Source-of-It-All building a break, a musical rest into the seven-beat measure of the Ultimate Jazz Riff of Creation. Try it with me: 1-2-3-4-5-6-rest / 1-2-3-4-5-6-rest /…
Did our ancestors guess that a few thousand years down the line, we would literally be dying from the pace of our work, our world? For unlike our other holy days and festivals, which reflect the earth-based aspect of our tradition, Shabbat isn’t linked to the cycles of the seasons or the waxing and waning of the moon or any natural event. Rather, the rhythm of Shabbat issues from Creation itself, as our ancestors imagined, intuited, and received it in the very earliest kabbalat Shabbat.
But the pause is just the beginning, for immediately: [sing] “vay’varekh elohim et yom hashvi’i vay’kadesh oto…” …and the Great Creative Force that unleashed the unprecedented burgeoning of the natural world blessed the Seventh Day and sanctified it” – set it aside, made it holy, because… pausing, another possibility comes into being – menukhah. The crown jewel of Creation. Rest.
How often do you rest – I mean, really deeply rest? How often does your mind, your body let you rest? Not the fitful sleep of the overloaded nervous system; not the distracted moments of downtime, when you find yourself processing a backlog of life issues you haven’t had time to attend to; not the evenings off when you cast about for something entertaining to do – but the blessed rest that brings healing dreams, the pure rest that restores your senses, the resting in and with things as they are that brings deepened insight, that re-connects you to your beloveds, that restores your faith in yourself and the world, that gives you back life’s juiciness? That kind of rest?
Shabbat m’nukhah, Sabbath rest, is the gift and the power of shavat, of that pause built into Creation, and perhaps into the very molecular structure of our universe. This is the day that G~d has made, rejoice and be glad in it! This is the day that the great 20th century poet, mystic, and activist, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, called “a palace in time,” an edifice made of soul, of joy, of restraint, of song, of delicious food, of love. “Labor is a craft,” writes Heschel, “but perfect rest is an art. It is the result of an accord of body, mind and imagination.”
Eastern spiritual traditions teach us to cultivate this kind of accord through meditative practice. And while Jewish tradition also has powerful streams of meditative and contemplative practice, the quintessential Jewish tool for restoring harmony of mind, body and soul is Shabbat. “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people,” wrote Ahad Ha-Am, the prominent early 20th century Hebrew essayist and founder of cultural Zionism.
For on this day, after the explosive and extended exhale of those furious first six eons of creation, G~d ceases unfurling winds and stars, ferns and fig trees, dinosaurs and diplomonads, and simply…takes a breath: [sing] u-vayom ha’shvi’i shavat vayinafash. G~d en-souls G~dself, refreshes the Divine nefesh. Ahhhhhhhh…..do it with me; see if you can let all the air out, make room for that next in-breath. The simplicity, the grace of it. Isn’t this the most basic movement of all creation, the natural inflow after the outflow, the alternation of expanding and condensing that scientists tell us is the inherent movement of our cosmos?
Aligning ourselves with this rhythm, becoming conscious of it, we “create the seventh day all over again, the majesty of holiness in time, ‘a day of rest, a day of freedom,’ a day on which hours do not oust one another,” a day that soothes sadness, a day of presence, a day that dignifies the work we are called to do in the world.
And this points us to yet another aspect of Shabbat. In addition to zakhor – remembering to pause, making time to rest, opening our souls to receive – there is shamor, to observe to keep, to guard. Shamor gives us the laws, the container of Shabbat. We first encounter this aspect of Shabbat in Torah right after the Israelites leave Egypt. They’ve experienced a miraculous sea-crossing, but now in the wilderness, they grumble in fear and hunger. G~d provides manna for them to eat, but tells them to refrain from gathering on the seventh day. They will receive a double portion, enough to sustain them through Shabbat, a day when they do not gather, a day to restrain movement, to release anxiety, to grow trust—a day to steep in the knowing that they--we—are not here under our own steam, through our own efforts, but through grace. Shamor v’zakor b’dibbur ekhad….observing and remembering, noticing and re-assembling. The laws of Shabbat, however we are moved to keep them for ourselves and in our communities, offer a supporting infrastructure that can allow the quality of sacred rest to emerge.
On a Friday afternoon, I shop for Shabbos. A pound of Strauss’ organic yogurt, two kinds of cheese, apples and oranges, two braided challah rolls. I pass the fish counter, see that there is wild-caught sockeye salmon. As the woman behind the counter wraps my half-pound, I stare at a whole flounder, bedded in ice, its two eyes on the same side of its head glazed over in death.
Suddenly I remember a conversation I once had with a flounder. It lay on the bottom of an aquarium tank in Golden Gate Park, eyes protruding above the rest of its body. As I passed the tank, the flounder’s eyes seemed to follow me. I backed up and knelt near the glass. Each time I shifted, those two strange eyes responded, following my movements in perfect synchrony. I sensed the memory of fishness in my cells communicating with the memory of humanness in the fish’s.
Back at Whole Foods, I am flooded with a kind of sadness for the stilled lives, displayed so cavalierly in silvery rows on ice, and something more – an indescribable flavor of awe. Our lives are braided like the challah dough, leavened by unseen forces, intertwined with those of creatures from the bottom of the sea and plants from other continents.
Perhaps the deepest, highest mystery of Shabbat is the transmutation of the mundane—the pink flesh of the salmon who gave its life for my meal, the green leaves of spinach and grains of rice, a pungent olive soaked in vinegar. Though the taste of Atika Kadisha (the Ancient-Holy-Presence-Beyond-Conceiving) eludes me like a soupçon of an unknown spice in a casserole, hidden eyes track my movements, awakening memory, and something in my cells jumps up and runs forward to greet.
Just as the memory of fishness, lizardness, birdness, and monkeyness live within our cells and our psyches, so I believe, does the memory of Shabbatness. Even for those of us who didn’t grow up with a joyful, resonant, and mindful Shabbat practice, this yearning swells deeply in us, as does the wisdom of the power of pause, the emptiness at the end of a complete exhale that can open a door on eternity.
What does it mean to you to shavat—to engage in the “pause that refreshes?” What are the memorable moments of shavat in your life? Perhaps a special get-away spot that you’ve returned to year after year to daydream, to soak in the beauty of nature. Perhaps your Shabbat is the peace of a north woods cabin, a pristine stretch of riverbank, the gentle riffle of a canoe paddle rhythmically plying the waters on a glass-smooth lake, a ski run in the snowy woods where no path has yet been broken. Or a table, clothed in white, surrounded by beloved faces shining as bright as the candle-lights, these simple wick-born flames that draw our imaginations, bodies, and souls toward a timeless light that has burned in the hearts and shone from the eyes of Shabbos-rememberers and Shabbos-keepers through countless generations, a mystic light that illumined the cosmos before suns and moons and stardust even existed.
Shabbat, shavat, the natural pause between an exhalation and the next in-breath, the en-souling rest that allows healing dreams to unfold, the césura that organizes the verse of poetry, the musical rest that defines the phrase, the pause pregnant with a joyous Presence, waiting to be born anew each week as we, the midwives, open our arms to receive Her.
Exhale—pause—inhale. Try it with me. Just for a moment, take your awareness inward. Feel your breathing. Now, on your next exhale, let all the air out—pause—and let the next inhale happen. Can you feel Her in the room?
I pause, I wait, trusting that the next breath will come, remembering that I am held and cared for even when I’m not trying, knowing that nothing I do or make ultimately belongs to me. Shavat. I let go for a few hours, take time to feel my insides, to look into the eyes of my beloveds, and to receive all that I’ve been given—to taste the manna of my life, not what I’ve earned through my efforts, but what is freely given, ever available. May we all be blessed to taste and to savor that sweetness.