This week, we once again have a schedule of holidays, which begins with:
2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. 3 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a sabbath of the Lord throughout your settlements. [Leviticus 23]
This is one of ten mentions of Shabbat that provides us with insight about Shabbat. Notably it is the holiday mentioned first. Unlike any of the annual ones listed like Passover, or counting the Omer or Sukkot, it is only Shabbat that is a weekly occurrence.
It was Philo of Alexandria who first made a leap based on a passage from Exodus. Shabbat is about Human rest because human rest allows us to be more productive the other days of the week. In that passage also known as the V’shamru prayer in the liturgy, there is a mention that on the seventh day God rested and was v’yinafash.
16. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant. 17. It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.[Exodus 31]
This is an example of a noun acting like a verb. Nefesh means soul, life or body. In this verbal form, it means to refresh one self, to resupply the body and soul. God does so in order that we follow his example, and keep ourselves in prime condition to serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
It would be just as easy to say that we should rest one out of seven days. Yet, such a commandment would prove useless. While the intent is wonderful, it requires some structure such as a set time in order for it to get executed in some way. I thought a lot about that while contemplating how I’m overwhelmed with stuff; mostly work related projects that need to get done.
I had just written a message on Facebook complaining of how tired I was when I started finding status updates from several of my college friends about Flunk Day. Flunk Day at my college is a day in the last trimester of the school year when classes are canceled. Everybody, both students and faculty, just stops and has a crazy day of merely fun activities. In the tension of that last part of the school year and after a long winter, it was always a welcome relief. I was not one for much of the fun of Flunk day when I was in school, though I do have a few favorite memories. Actually my favorite Flunk Day tradition was to sleep in. For the most part, I did nothing that day, just rested. Being non-practicing at the time, I really didn’t know about Shabbat.
Twenty years ago, if you were to ask me about Shabbat, I would tell you it was God’s day of rest, not mine. I would be very puzzled if you told me that I was supposed to rest. For me, it seemed Shabbat was more about following a set of rules and prayers. It seemed to me to be a lot of work, more work and more stress than a regular day at school. From my Conservative synagogue and Orthodox schooling, I learned that by saying or doing anything wrong, I was a bad person. Such structure is known as keva. Being brought up with too much Keva had taken its toll. By the time I was in college, I turned away from Judaism because a religion of just Keva seemed too heavy for me. A Shabbat of just Keva held neither spiritual connection nor Physical benefit for me.
About ten years ago I was on another College campus, this time in Corvallis Oregon. While there was no Flunk Day, there was Shabbat. Yet, this Shabbat was so different from the ones of my youth. It was the ALEPH Kallah, the educational gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement. Within the Renewal movement is a strong emphasis on Kavvanah. Kavvanah is the intention and feeling of mitzvah. Shabbat this time made me think of Flunk day again. Friday night was a night of a singing and dancing prayer service with an incredible Shabbat dinner following it. While I did get up early, it was to go to a beautiful prayer service of singing and chanting. Much of the rest of the day was resting and spending time relating to people. It was such a different experience, and a very spiritually uplifting one. I was once again hooked on Shabbat there, where I learned what the Kavvanah of Shabbat was.
Abraham Joshua Heschel spends much of his writings discussing polarities, and the polarity of keva and Kavvanah becomes common in his writings. He believes that there is a need for balance between these two, for they each perform a function to optimal spiritual experience. Keva provides the structure, while Kavvanah provides the feeling. One without the other tends to not work so well. In my view, Keva alone is cold, weighty and conformist, while Kavvanah by itself tends towards chaos and self absorption.
So several years later, I moved from Renewal to Reform Judaism in order to find the balance that worked for me. I’ve found Shabbat to be both Keva and Kavvanah in the minyan where I go to services regularly. Yet last week was one of those completely overwhelming weeks, so overwhelming I broke down and cried on several occasions. I was completely wiped out. Saturday morning however, I got up and did something I’ve never done before: Declare a Shabbat Flunk Day. After making an incredible breakfast, I got back into bed until 11:30. Doing nothing but dozing and being warm in bed was so wonderful. Getting up late, and heading up to the family’s vacation home, only stopping for a wonderful lunch with the love of my life was even better. Last Saturday I dumped the Keva of my Saturday mornings for pure Kavvanah of a flunk day. And it was very good.
Now that is not for every week, to be sure. Usually we need balance between Keva and Kavvanah. But every once in a while, when the Keva is overwhelming, it’s nice to take a Shabbat flunk day, skip service and just enjoy a day of rest. Such days restore the Kavvanah to the balance. I sure enjoyed mine.