I still remember the first time I tried to sit still. Not in an elementary school way, but in meditation. I was nearly 20. Myself and two friends, relatively spontaneously, decided to join a sit at the San Francisco Zen Center. We were each given a cushion and a cubicle of sorts. We were instructed to sit still for 30 minutes. If we needed to move, we were told to first bow and then move with awareness.
All I remember is spending what felt like an eternity repeatedly bowing to myself, until I had literally given myself the giggles. After a few minutes I ran out of the room and completely unraveled into a ball of nervous laughter. I am confident I was a complete distraction to everyone present, most of all myself.
And yet I was also encouraged. The unparalleled simplicity of the instruction to sit still has captured my spiritual attention for nearly 20 years. This is not a posture that comes easily to me. Yet one that most ancient spiritual traditions point to.
Over the years I have come to understand that Shabbat is to time as meditation is to being human. We sing of this stillness every week on Shabbat afternoon and read them aloud in this week's parsha, Ki Tissa:
וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם
The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.
בֵּינִ֗י וּבֵין֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל א֥וֹת הִ֖וא לְעֹלָ֑ם כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ׃
It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Holy One made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day ceased and was refreshed (shavat vayinafash) (Exodus 31:16-17).
According to these words, Shabbat is not just stillness for its own sake, but it also contains a sense of promise. Not exactly the enlightenment of meditation, but the possibility of being re-souled, refreshed, renewed (shavat vayinafash).
For the rabbis, the promise of renewal and the mitzvah to observe Shabbat is so important they say it is tantamount to observing all other mitzvot combined. The first mention of Shabbat comes famously on the seventh day of creation. And then there is relative radio silence. We never hear about our ancestors observing shabbat in Genesis. Until parshat Beshallach, just about a month ago, when Shabbat reappears in regards to manna in the desert. And from then on, Shabbat appears in every parsha in Exodus. Shabbat is mentioned relative to all the instructions to build the mishkan. Perhaps most famously in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. And in particular in this week's parsha as we get the second set of tablets, once again inviting the instructions around observing Shabbat.
One midrash offers us an aspirational image from the natural world.
נְהַר סַמְבַּטְיוֹן מֵעִיד שֶׁבְּכָל יָמִים הוּא מוֹשֵׁךְ אֲבָנִים וָחוֹל וּבְשַׁבָּת נִנּוֹחַ.
Even the river of Sabbtyon testifies to the power of Shabbat for it carries stones and sand throughout the week, but on Shabbat it is still (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 33).
Shabbat is a time in which the current ceases and the rocks settle. And for a moment the world is still. Yet nothing about this stillness comes naturally to me. And nothing about it is supported by popular culture or capitalism. To borrow an image from the poet Ross Gay, Shabbat is at its best a day for loitering.
"The Webster's definition of loiter reads thus: 'to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,' and 'to travel indolently with frequent pauses.' Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet ('Lollygagger!' or 'Loafer!')...All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues."
Ross Gay goes on to say that loitering is delightful. And wouldn't you know it, so is Shabbat. To quote the liturgy of the Mussaf Amidah,
יִשמְחוּ בְמַלְכוּתְךָ שׁומְרֵי שַׁבָּת וְקורְאֵי ענֶג.
They will rejoice, those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight (v'korei oneg).
For me delight conjures a tender, easeful kind of joy. It has tones of spontaneity and the unexpected. Not feelings that have primarily been present for me in meditation, nor necessarily on Shabbat. If I am honest, some weeks I dread Shabbat during the pandemic. The days are long and the distractions are few, and I miss being physically together. I quickly recover the spirit of myself 20 years ago, looking for the eject button from this spiritual practice. There must be a way out.
And so I am grateful for the wisdom of Ross Gay. His essay continues:
"Which points to another of the synonyms for loitering, which I almost wrote as delight: taking one's time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one's time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one's own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is."
And I am grateful for the repetitive instructions of Exodus which seem at times to be like pounding a nail into wood, and in other moments, like an abundant gift.
V'shamru et yom hashabbat
Protect this day. For it is precious.
V'nei u'vein b'nei yisrael ot hi l'olam
It is what binds us together.
Ki sheshet yamim asa adonai et hashamayim v'et haaretz
For all week we are busy and time is not our own
U'vayom hashevi'i shavat vayinafash
But on this day, we cease and refresh.
Whatever your Shabbat practice includes and excludes, I invite you to linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey.
May you have the courage and discipline to take your time this Shabbat, to go slow enough to conjure delight and to know that you are connected to many concentric circles of people who are doing so with you.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.