(Rock) Climbing to the World to Come

A few months ago, even though I’m afraid of heights, I joined the local rock gym. No, I had never been rock climbing before – it just seemed like a fun activity I could do together with my partner. But before we were allowed to climb on our own, we had to pass a series of small tests given by staff at the gym. The first lesson was “mat placement,” i.e., how to move the gym mats right under the highest part of our climb so that if we fell, we wouldn’t get seriously hurt.

Each climbing route is labeled. The easiest one is VB, the hardest V16. I just started climbing V2s last week (which are, surprisingly, much harder than the VBs, V0s and V1s that I started with!). I get immense satisfaction out of confronting the challenge of these V2s, and – on some occasions – actually making it to the top of the climb. Even when I don’t finish, I’m proud I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I know I wouldn’t take the risk of tackling these harder climbs if I hadn’t learned proper mat placement.

Over the course of our lives, we grow afraid of falling, and do everything we can to avoid it. This is because we’ve evolved to protect ourselves from negative experiences. Missing the cue that falling, in a few particular situations, can prove fatal, our brain gets activated to make us do something about it. “Negativity bias” is the name for our tendency to have greater sensitivity to negative events than positive ones. And while this bias may help us in situations related to our survival, it can cause us great distress in everyday life.

In short, our memories of negative experiences stick. Some research posits that negative events have close to three times the psychological weight of positive events. As we listen to the news, or experience hardships of our own, we have greater and greater difficulty seeing the world as it is. Counterbalancing our negativity bias, Shabbat becomes a time to refuel our spirits and restore our sense of hope. In instructing us to observe Shabbat on the seventh day of each week, Torah is inviting us to station a cushion of resilience underneath the hardships of life.

The ancient sages say Shabbat is a taste le’atid lavo – of the world to come, of the world as it can be. In the language of positive psychology, Shabbat is a day to practice “STAGE”: Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, Empathize. We Savor the food that we eat unrushed, and the company of friends. We give Thanks for a day free from striving, competition, and work – a day of total rest. We Aspire to meaning in our lives, taking time to review our weeks and see where we are in relation to that sense of purpose. We Give attention to the natural beauty around us, generously offer food when we host a meal, and bring our full presence to friends and family. As we step away from our screens and turn to those next to us, we build social connections and refresh our capacity to Empathize.

As I continue to go to the rock gym, I grow less afraid of those V2s, and dare to climb higher. With each attempt, my trust deepens that I’ll be able to reach the next hold – and even if I don’t, I know I’ll be okay if I fall. Even though I’m scared of heights, I can let go at the top of my climb up a boulder knowing I’ve got something under me that I can land on. Just so, Shabbat cushions us from the emotional and spiritual spills we take during the week. We don’t always know how or even if we’ll fall, but we can set up the cushion of Shabbat and fall onto it one day each week. On that day, we drop into the joy, love, and safety that have been there for us all along.

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