Friday, 4 March 2016

All Work and No Play Makes ....

Here are the children of Israel, finally been given the instructions for the most important project of the 40 year wandering in the desert.

Build a sanctuary - a place for God's presence to dwell.

For the last three weeks we've been reading through the details; the architectural instructions, the designs for all the vessels and the vestments that will populate the sanctuary. We've even had the funding proposal, about which Lucas spoke so beautifully today.

And then, this week we get the process of construction - exactly how all these plans came to fruition. And sandwiched in the midst of all that comes an instruction about Shabbat

2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to God - whoever works then shall be put to death.

Shabbat is at the heart of Jewish observance, and there are some very lovely things we are called to do on Shabbat - special things - light special candles, eat special bread, enjoy special time together.

But Shabbat is also a collection of forbidden actions - called malachot - things you can't do.
So here's the question, why go into this now.
We were concentrating on something else, we had the instructions about the building of the sanctuary, and next we are going to build the sanctuary.
Why butt in with this information about Shabbat?

Rashi, the greatest of all Biblical commentators, suggests this juxtaposition comes to teach that the construction of the sanctuary doesn't take preference over the observance of Shabbat. Six days you build and on the seventh day you pause from your building and dedicate that day to God.

That's fair enough.
The Bible instructs us to do this, and to do that.
So we get an instruction that clarifies, when it's impossible to both this and that at the same time which takes priority.

But the Talmud goes far further, and Rashi makes the same point elsewhere. The Talmud suggests that the connection between the Shabbat and the sanctuary is more than a simple balancing out of priorities.
The Talmud teaches that the things prohibited on Shabbat are the very acts of work performed in the construction of the sanctuary.

There is a list of categories of work forbidden on Shabbat. They include building, hammering, creation of fire, stitching of cloth, working of leather - all absolutely integral to the construction of a sanctuary made out of cloth and leatherwork. And the fact that they are integral to building the sanctuary means that they are inimical to the observance of Shabbat.

The inability to have both at the same time isn't a co-incidence. It's not that you can't do both your French homework and your maths homework at the same time. It's that we have two competing paradigms of how live in this world.

It's like that famous silhouette of two black faces looking at one another that is at the same time a white vase. Shabbat is the counter to the sanctuary, the sanctuary is the negative of the Shabbat.
One is the process of getting stuck in, conquering, achieving, building.
The other is the process of stepping back, abstaining, paying homage to that which is more important than ourselves.

It's an interesting idea.
We are told to observance Shabbat as a mark of remembering that this world was created in six days, and God rested on the Seventh Day.
Nothing that we build, no matter how fancy or important is more important than that first act of creation and rest.
It's a powerful message for our time.
We are all so busy, all so busy building things - portfolios, bank balances, GCSE exam results.
We are all so busy trying to achieve, conquer, accumulate.
It's good to be reminded that nothing we build is more important than this basic act of homage.

There is a great tale of the dangers of getting too carried away with building way back in the Book of Genesis - the Tower of Babel.
The Rabbis suggest that the excitement around building a Tower so tall that it's head could reach the heavens, was deeply destructive.
There were so many people building, and the Tower was so high that, teach the Rabbis when a person involved in the building project fell off the scaffold they instant had a replacement ready to step into their place, but when a brick fell off the builders mourned the loss of such a valuable raw material.

It's a great Midrash.
And one so relevant for our times.
Every now and again there's a story of I-pad workers committing suicide resulting from the pace at which they are expected to work.
Or the miners of precious metals who are dying to bring us the rare-earths we all take for granted in our smartphone-batteries and low-energy light-bulbs.
All we do is grumble at the cost of LED bulbs, the death of the producers of these raw materials concerns us not at all.

If we pursue work to the exclusion of all else we lose sight of the dangers of the over-extraction of the earth's resources. We lose sight of the dangerous of the over-extraction of our own resources. I had this experience on sabbatical. It was only when I stopped that I realised how depleted I had become.

It is only in the pausing from the acts of business, construction and accumulation that we realise how much we enslave ourselves to modern-day Pharaohs who call on us to produce more and more with less and less regard for what and who gets hurt in the process.

Here is the uncomfortable truth for any of us who might, at this point, be thinking how terrible their bosses at work, or parents at home might be for treating us like slaves chained to seven day a week construction details. Don't point the finger at anyone else. We enslave ourselves to a far greater degree than we are enslaved by any outside force. We persuade ourselves that our current job or project is just too important to stop and reflect. If we wanted to pause we could pause. If we wanted to give ourselves the possibilities of reflection we could give ourselves the possibilities of reflection. It takes a little organisation, a little planning. But it's possible. The alternative is we become voluntary slaves stripping ourselves and the world we live in of their vitality and possibility.

It's got something to do with humility. Whatever this project is that we are embarked on, it's not that important. It really isn't. If you are in the business of saving a life - go ahead, that's fine, you can do that on Shabbat. But if you are in the business of some merger and acquisition, or GCSE coursework we should take a moment to remind ourselves that our attempts to accumulate and conquer aren't the be all and end all of the world. Even a project as mighty as the construction of the sanctuary could afford to stop. Actually it might even be that we can become more productive if we got off the hamster wheel once in a while and thought about why we do what we do and how we get to live the life we wish for ourselves.

I wonder if there is anything we can learn from the world of physiology. Apparently if you stress and re-stress and re-stress a muscle continually it doesn't get stronger. In fact a muscle placed under continual stress will start to cramp, cause pain, atrophy - waste away - even. Apparently the smart thing to do with muscles is stress, then relax, work, then rest. And that's how we get stronger muscles. I don't think our souls, the emotional side of our lives are any different.

But the aim of this process isn't just to be more effective producers of stuff in the six days a week we are working. This is my greatest teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel giving a tip to the young of his day in a television interview recorded shortly before his death in 1972;

            Above all [taught Heschel] remember that the meaning of life it to build a life as if it were a            work of art. You are not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of           art called your own existence.

Are we living our lives as if we are creating a work of art, or are we some modern kind of pre-Victorian donkey chained to a yoke, dragging a stone round and round the threshing floor producing wheat, eating straw and destined for nothing more?

            Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

Shabbat is how we get to turn our lives into works of art; joyous moments of celebration of what it means to be alive, free from slaver - even our self-imposed slavery, abstaining from the day-to-day work of building, accumulating ever more, taking care of our basic physical needs.

So how do we do it.
The temptations of building a sanctuary aren't, I suspect, going to call too greatly on any of us when we get home from Shul this afternoon.

But try these very contemporary opportunities to step back from the world of stuff, opportunities to step into the world of a life free of the tugs of the get-more get-more society.

First off, don't spend money. Shut the purse, leave the wallet. Buy nothing between now and the time the stars come out this evening - just after 6:30 tonight.
You won't starve - if you really have nothing in the fridge, stock up well at Kiddush. But you can make it without purchasing anything extra to add to your collection of stuff. And you'll save some money.

Next, the phone, oh I know, felt so great when we first got one. All the worlds of opportunity opened up before us, now enslaved to the little blue screen. On the tube's banks of heads down - physiotherapists treating curved over spines and over-stressed thumbs. Try for the rest of the day to communicate off-line, in the real world, to real people.
Wonderful blog - hands-free mama. Notion that if trying to parent while carrying a phone you aren't really being a parent. Dad's are guilty too. I'm guilty too, but not on Shabbat. no phones. Real encounters with real people.

And one more, demarcate.
Wait till there are three stars in the sky and make explicit that you are leaving this glorious world of Shabbat - until next week - and preparing to enter a very different world, that all too familiar world of business and accumulation.
There is a Hebrew blessing
Blessed are you God who made a difference between the  sacred and the humdrum.
In fact there is a whole ritual with candles and spices, it's called Havdalah - I love it - but that can wait for a week.
This week just stop to demarcate the difference between the holy and the humdrum.

No matter how important your project.
No matter how used you are to permanently chasing after the stuff of the world.

Take the rest of the day to stop spending, stop playing with the phone, and then demarcate the re-entry into the world of the humrum.

In so doing remind yourself that not even building the sanctuary took precedence over the honouring of the Shabbat.
In so doing heed Heschel's words,

            remember that the meaning of life it to build a life as if it were a work of art. You are                      not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own             existence.

In so doing have a sweet sabbath of peace,
Shabbat shalom

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