Why I Walk to Shul: Shabbat as Mindfulness
It's raining outside today, which has me thinking about an old joke:
Q: What does a bear do when it rains?
A: It gets wet.
Let’s contrast that to what I do when it rains:
We modern people tend to see nature as “other” – as a resource to be mastered, or a nuisance to be dealt with. This has been part of the human experience ever since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. We plant seeds and reap our crops, and then we make food and clothing and shelter out of them. We live on this planet, but not exactly in harmony with this planet. And we see ourselves as something higher, something other.
That's not a bad thing in and of itself. Human civilization is the result of this kind of thinking. Morality comes from the idea that we are more than our animal impulses. And if we didn't understand ourselves as the masters of nature, we could never have accomplished the things that we have - there would be no medicines, no cell phones, no space travel, and no gourmet recipes.
But the other result this kind of thinking is the otherness of nature. Rather than just getting wet like the bears, we spend time figuring out how to cope with, and mitigate, and change the natural world around us. How to remake it in our own image. And we tend to forget to stop and just appreciate it.
One “antidote” to this in the Torah is the Sabbatical year. The book of Leviticus teaches that every seven years we should leave the land to lie fallow for one year, without planting anything. We do this because it’s good for the land – it allows it to refresh and regenerate. But we also do it because it’s good for us. It helps us to foster the thinking that we don’t always have to be trying to master nature. That we are a part of the world, and not apart from the world.
That's a lesson we need much more often than every seven years. Which is why, fortunately, we get it every seven days.
Throughout Jewish literature, Shabbat is framed not only as a cessation from work, but as a cessation from creative work. In Genesis, God spends six days creating the world – shaping and forming and building – and then stops to rest. In fact, the traditionally forbidden forms of work - including sowing, reaping, baking, cooking, and cutting – are the processes by which we harness natural resources and use them for our own purposes. It’s not about exertion (God wasn’t “tired” after six days) – it’s about the fact that it’s good for us to stop trying to master the world and instead focus on appreciating it.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath that Shabbat is a day to “turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” In other words, to stop creating for long enough to appreciate what has already been created.
In modern language we call that mindfulness. It is the practice of being where you are. Not planning for the future; not worrying about what has not yet been accomplished; but being conscious and aware of what IS. This is not easy to do - the human experience is by nature a creative one. But there is also goodness in practicing appreciation.
That is why I like to walk to shul on Shabbat.
It’s not that I think I have to – as a liberal Jew, I believe that I have the choice. But I am aware that I spend most of my life trying to get quickly from place to place. And when I’m speeding up the road at 60 km/hr, I’m not taking the time to appreciate the world around me. But one day a week I can slow it all down. I can see the sights, and hear the sounds, and walk through parks, and notice things I haven’t noticed before.
Do I always walk to the synagogue on Shabbat? I do not. Sometimes I’m running late; sometimes I'm in a hurry to get the kids out the door. But having it as an aspiration reminds me to think differently, to be more mindful and more appreciative. It helps me see the world around me not only as a nuisance, not only as a resource, but as a gift.
Rabbi Micah Streiffer is a writer, a congregational rabbi, and spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Check out his blog to read more.
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What is the reason for the shemittah year [7th year of lying fallow]? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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