An empty park
Categories: The Parish Column

Shabbat: A Sacred Time for Rest

A friend who’s a lifetime resident tells me that my neighborhood in Silver Spring was founded at least in part as a place where Jews could buy homes in the Washington suburbs. It was a time – the 1950’s – when the racial covenants that kept Jews, African Americans, and others from home ownership in many of these suburbs had been ruled unconstitutional, but the restrictions were still enforced by many homeowners, realtors, and homeowners’ associations. Another long-time resident likes to tell the story of how he was fetched to a neighbor’s house early one Saturday morning to turn off a burner on their stove. “They were observing Shabbat and couldn’t do it themselves,” says Al, who is not Jewish and so could operate a stove on the sabbath.

The neighborhood demographics have shifted since then, but our listserv was still talking about Shabbat this week as a viral (pun intended) poem about coronavirus was making the rounds. Forgive me if you’ve already seen it. Entitled “Pandemic” and written by Lynn Ungar, a California woman who is both Jewish and a Unitarian minister, the poem asks readers whose daily lives are restricted due to the coronavirus to consider: “What if you thought of it / as the Jews consider the Sabbath – / the most sacred of times?”

Of course the virus threat and response that we are all living under now – fear, illness, threat of death, economic shocks that will most affect those least able to weather them – are anything but sacred. But for those of us safe and healthy but confined to home, this enforced time of quiet has many intersections with the practice of Shabbat.

As Jesus taught, the sabbath was made to benefit people, not the other way around.  By mandating a work week limited to six days, it lifted the Israelites (and any foreigners around) from the level of slaves. In the Hebrew Bible there’s also a mandate to observe a Sabbath year of rest every seven years, intended to regenerate the land (plowing and cultivation of crops were forbidden), aid the poor and even wild animals (what did grow belonged to anyone who cared to pluck it), and prevent the formation of a permanent underclass (all debts were to be forgiven).

To be honest, a modern-day version of Shabbat also underlies many of the pledges proposed this Lent by the Eco-Task Force. In presenting them to the congregation, we talked about their practicality – save money, save time, save the planet. But many of them can be understood as spiritual disciplines, and this is in fact how many of us really experience them, from saving energy to making compost.  Just consider riding mass transit, in healthier times. A single trip can include such old-fashioned “Christian” virtues as patience (“My app says the bus is still six minutes away”), humility (“I don’t get to drive this thing or choose the route”), and love of neighbor (“That young man’s taste in music and choice of vocabulary are very different from mine, but he does have a lovely singing voice”).

For those who haven’t seen it and with hopes that everyone stays healthy so that this time can serve as something more than a Netflix binge or dread house arrest for all of us, here is Lynn Unger’s poem in full:


What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath-
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down. 

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch. 

Promise this world your love-
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.