I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.
Wendell Berry, Sabbaths—1979, IV
If anyone is tallying up votes for the 2020 phrase of the year, “What day is it?” could give “You’re on mute” a run for its money. In quarantine, nebulous days, weeks, and months speed through us like a haze. And the cadence by which we previously signified time lost its rhythm, so it’s easy to lose track.
Along with the blurring of time, our various responsibilities also melt into each other as home becomes the command center of literally everything. We’re employees, employers, parents, teachers, and caregivers all at once, with thinning boundaries between each role.
Because of this, many are working longer and harder than ever before. When my workplace turns into a digital office, the net effect is, in fact, a more productive work force. Perhaps to compensate for our interrupted days, our work hours span a longer stretch of time.
This manner of working, I find, heightens a particular problem: it is hard to stop working.
When the end of the work day is undefined, and work hours can restart at any time of the day or night, you can really work until you drop. As a result, there’s a collective exhaustion that warns of an upcoming burnout, if it hasn’t happened already.
It is certainly not sustainable to live without boundaries. Is there a corrective, though, to our pandemic lives? I think there is at least one: the seventh-day Sabbath.
Sabbath as Technology for Living
For some of us, the ritual of the Sabbath—ceasing from work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown—helps mark life’s newly obscured rhythm. Even though it is an ancient practice, it is a relevant technology for living today.
In a Washington Post opinion piece back in May, lawyer Jay Lefkowitz reflects on how the Sabbath helps delineate the days of the week during COVID. It also helps separate the sacred—like worship, family time, and reflection—from the common. As rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
But more than just the weekly Sabbath, the practice of delineating time—the ritual of mindfully entering and leaving sections of the day—is necessary not only to make us more resilient, but also to maintain our humanity. We are not an automaton that can produce 24/7. We need restoration and demand a greater measure of our lives’ worth than just how productive we are.
In exercising these time limits, we are in fact exercising our humanity. The ability to stop working, willingly, and to act with purpose is a strength of our personhood. For we may work, but we should not be enslaved.
Ceasing as a Mark of Personhood
In the book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Sigve Tonstad highlights the relationship between our humanity and the act of ceasing labor. Speaking of the biblical creation account,
“The account reports both a beginning and a completion. [Karl] Barth notes that ‘God does not continue His work on the seventh day in an infinite series of creative acts.’ The cessation and completion are markers of personhood and of a definite purpose.”
The completion of creation marks two things: someone who has agency in planning the scope of the work and who knows when that purpose has been fulfilled. In a work-focused world, we know too well that declaring a work completed is extremely hard. There’s always more to do and scope creeps everywhere.
“Extending this thought, Jacques Ellul, the prolific French sociologist and theologian, emphasizes an understanding of Creation that attributes more than a causal role to God. A mere causal function does not have the means to stop the process. ‘A cause cannot cease to be a cause without ceasing to be,’ writes Ellul. ‘It must produce its effects to infinity. God is not a cause, then, for we are told that he decides to rest.’”
Here, per Jacques Ellul, he makes the contrast between a Being/person and an inanimate force/a cause. The cessation of God’s creation is an act of the will; no other force causes him to stop, like friction or a brake that decelerates a moving object. He stops, because He wants to stop. We may also call this, freedom.
Sabbath in the Time of Corona
Quoting Heschel again,
“Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”
Freedom. Independence. These are odd words to say in a pandemic. But in practicing the Sabbath—that regenerative time and space, guilt-free and restful—we may reclaim some of this freedom, even if it is just for one day.
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