Today is the birthday of a very old and very dear friend. One of the first Americans we’d ever met, 21 years ago he volunteered to teach English to an immigrant family, who were very new, very scared, and very clueless in this strange land, and together with a bit of English in his little apartment we got to know about his life and his enormous heart. He’d been a school teacher. He’d fought in the War with us. He madly, childishly loved ice cream.
He’s been gone 15 years now, and we go visit his resting place at a large Jewish cemetery on whatever Saturday is closest to his birthday. We go on Saturday because the cemetery is always empty then. Observant Jews do not hold funerals or visit graves on Sabbath. It is a day of celebration and life, a day of prayer, food, and family. A day for weddings but not funerals. A holy day. And yesterday was the same: my parents and I left pebbles on our friend’s headstone according to a Jewish custom and said our hellos, but here’s what I kept thinking: Sabbath. How great is that?
What most people know about the commandment the observant Jews keep to rest on Sabbath is that they don’t work on Saturday, and that it can set a community apart, and that for the very orthodox it can look like a terrible hassle: can’t drive, can’t cook, can’t answer the phone or even flip light switches. But the variety of interpretations of what it means to “rest” on Sabbath in emulation of God who rested after six days of creative work – or as an affirmation of freedom and dignity of a nation that had thrown off the chains of slavery – is based on one overarching idea: this day is holy.
That’s what the commandment actually says: “Keep the Sabbath day holy.”
Through thousands of years of history filled with one disaster after another, terror, uncertainty, and oppression, tearing roots and haunting loss, one thing has remained constant: Sabbath, the holy time that comes even if the holy land is taken away. In all but the worst of circumstances, every seventh day Israel puts away the worries of the world and the vain things of life, the fear of tomorrow and the grudges of yesterday. It is the day to come together with family and community, to read the Scripture and remember the stories that make the people who they are. It is the day for the best meal, for making love, for playing with children. More than anything, it is the day for God – a glimpse of the holy time that is to come, when fear and worry will disappear forever and only love and God and play will reign.
Christian Sunday is Sabbath, too, though the early Church relaxed its laws on things like diet, Sabbath, and circumcision for gentile converts. Yet Sunday is a Christian’s holy day, the day of celebration and remembrance, the day of prayer and family, the day for God in a way that other days are not. Of course, if we don’t hurry it. If we spend that day – even half the day – celebrating what Sunday means to us. If we don’t stop by the church on the way to something else.
We often feel just so busy… I know I do. But I wonder if we’re not better and more productive and less irritable and ultimately more useful to ourselves and to the world in six days, if we breathe deeply and belong to God on the seventh.
Think about it. Sabbath. Sacred time. A whole day out of time, out of this world. Every week, almost no matter what. How great is that?