Among other pleasures, summer is my time to focus more intently on reading. Invariably I’m ensconced in reading multiple books, representing various different interests and disciplines all at the same time as the weeks roll by. Sometimes a book will so capture my heart and soul that I mentally add it to what I often think of as my “desert island books.” If I were stranded on a secluded island, what small handful of books would I absolutely want with me, as if these were the only books to which I’d ever again have access. One candidate for my DIB list has long been Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s extended essay, “The Sabbath.” In fact I often quote from Heschel’s masterpiece:
“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement.”
While I did not re-read “The Sabbath” this summer, it has been very much on my mind over these past two months, as I have enjoyed the gift of some sabbatical time. Of course we know that the “sabbatical” concept is tightly related to the concept of Shabbat. In Leviticus 25:3-4 we read of the origins of the sabbatical concept, as the Torah instructs us to grant the land, God’s creation a shabbaton – the Hebrew word for sabbatical: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for Adonai; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. ”
Like the six days of the week which lead to shabbat, the six years lead to shabbaton.
For me, these past two months of shabbaton, of ceasing from my accustomed schedule have been an incredible blessing. It’s not just stepping back from meetings, ties and suits, and routine. It has also been a time of disconnecting from email (to a great extent) and of connecting to a different range of activities and explorations, in order to allow my mind, body, heart and soul to renew, much as the land is renewed by being allowed to lie fallow during the shabbaton.
These two months have not much been about lying fallow. They have been filled, initially with time at home — trying to switch gears, re-connecting, reading and studying. This was followed by time in Israel filled with study and exploration, music, museums, and time with friends and colleagues. In some ways the richest and most profound part of this time of shabbaton may have been the final weeks which I spent in the Berkshires in and around the Eisner Camp. Yes, this gave me time to be with most of my family. It also gave me the opportunity to really explore shabbaton as I removed myself from familiar activities and routines and plopped myself down in a world I’d never experienced before as I spent almost 6 days studying a different kind of “torah” at the Kripalu Center in Lenox. While immersed in a seminar on Whole Self Well-Being, I was also introduced to the worlds of yoga and meditation in ways I had never before allowed myself to explore. It was in this context, and in the weeks since that Rabbi Heschel’s teaching about the meaning of shabbat, and my reflections about the meaning of shabbaton really took root. Indeed, at the close of the week’s seminar, our teachers, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Maria Sirois and Megan McDonough of the WholeBeing Institute (www.wholebeinginstitute.com) challenged each of us to create a plan so that what we’d learned would not merely be an interesting week spent in the Berkshires, but rather a path to be traveled towards greater wholeness (might I say shalom), and towards healthier living and better resilience. It has been almost three weeks, and I am working to live that challenge. In a very real sense, this is greatest take-away from my shabbaton, one that I am challenging myself to live each day of the year to come.
As I transition from shabbaton back into life at home and Temple, I find myself renewed, refreshed, and restored. In the almost three weeks since the end of the seminar I have been working, on a daily basis to live the challenge of my teachers as I face this month of spiritual, and rabbinic preparation for our coming Holy Days. I have been, and will continue to work towards living what I have learned (and to teaching) both at Hartman and from the Wholebeing Institute team, for I believe it is not just a way to prepare for the coming Holy Days, but also to live into and through the year ahead.
It’s great to be back!