If someone came up behind me and announced, “You are under arrest,” I’d immediately tense up, ready to be grabbed, handcuffed, thrown into a police vehicle and driven to headquarters. I’d feel humiliated, exposed as one unfit for the workaday world, a stranger lost in time. How odd that a mere four words could trigger such an anguished dissociation.
For surely to be arrested is one of the great experiences of being alive: It is to be stopped in your tracks, stunned by beauty, astounded, even wounded to the quick, by the exquisiteness of a moment. Arrested by the beauty of a sunset, a driver pulls off to the side of the road where, enraptured by the celestial light show, she forgets where she is.
To surrender in this way — that is, not to submit to a superior force, but rather to allow yourself to be overcome by a fragrance, a sound, a sight, a taste, a memory; to experience angels of peace welcoming you to a new alertness; to yield to the freedom of going “under a rest” and to receive that rest as a gift — curiously, this is harder to let be than one might expect. Maybe that is why the Torah is filled with tales of stopping and why it institutionalizes a full day of stopping each week as one of the Ten Instructions delivered at Mount Sinai.
The first Shabbat, a term that literally means stop, appears in the Jewish book of beginning, Genesis, where we are told that after six days of ceaseless labor, the frantic creator, feeling that the heavens and the earth were finally complete, stopped. Genesis reports that God stopped — the most moved Mover stopped moving. Arrested by the stupendous beauty of the world that had been summoned into being by divine fiat, the deity becomes a star gazer, a bird watcher, a leaf peeker.
But this is insane; dubious theology; pure biblical madness. It’s dangerous and irresponsible simply to stop and surrender to the world as it is. You might never return to your labors. Think of the many health workers during the pandemic who stopped and never went back to the work that had brought them to the pit of exhaustion and despair. Consider a runner who stops mid-race and begins to walk — she may never recover her stride, might even give up and drop out. After a total pause, how do you return to the rhythms and demands of daily life? How do you come down from the mountaintop and reenter the city? How do you let go of Shabbat’s taste of a world complete and perfect as it is and reenter the broken, mutilated world? And why would you?
Jewish tradition offers wise counsel on how to leave the homeland of Shabbat and reenter exile. The ceremony of separation from Shabbat, known as Havdalah, plays out with four symbols: wine, spices, a braided candle and the presence of the prophet Elijah. These distill into four pillars of wisdom: Take comfort in sweet spirits. Breathe deeply. Kindle fires to dispel chill and illuminate darkness. And be ever ready to enter messianic time.
But the tradition is silent about why you would ever choose to leave the serenity of Shabbat, why you might re-attune yourself to the cries of the oppressed, to the unfinished projects and unrealized dreams of a world hungry for healing, a world reeling towards its own possible extinction. Once I have found shelter from the world, why would I let myself be thrown back into it? Am I lured by the possibility that I might have been created to make a contribution, uniquely my own, toward relieving the loneliness and absurdity of the world? I do not know. But I do hear the gentle first-century sage Hillel asking me, “If I am not for myself, who will be? When I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The fourth of the Ten Instructions says: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Hillel’s colleague, Shammai, explained how he satisfies the obligation to remember Shabbat each day of the week: “If I find a delicious cookie or a cake, on Monday, I wrap it up to be saved for Shabbat,” he said. “If a better cake comes into view on Wednesday, I wrap that one up for Shabbat and enjoy the earlier one as I want.”
Hillel listened, thought a moment and replied: “I remember Shabbat every day by receiving whatever food comes my way, any day, as a gift from God and I eat and enjoy it on the spot.”
Shammai tastes Shabbat but once a week. He lives in two separate worlds, the six days and the holy Shabbat. Hillel, on the other hand, tastes Shabbat every day. Shall we not say that in some sense, Hillel never leaves Shabbat? That he has found a way to bring Shabbat into the world of the six days?
Though tradition tells us they are both right, I much prefer to live like Hillel. How about you?
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Apr. 29, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.