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Receiving the Gift of Sabbath

Often, when we think of the biblical commandment to “keep the Sabbath,” our imaginations are full of the movies and novels that portray the dull Sundays of the past, where hours were spent sitting on hard benches in church and then in boring conversations about the weather, as people squirmed in their corsets in stuffy parlors. Other times, we might listen to the intricate lists of things that our orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters must avoid on the Sabbath (which, of course, is really Saturday, not Sunday) and look down our noses at the “legalism” of it all.

“Thank goodness that Jesus put an end to all of those silly restrictions,” we gloat. “Thank goodness for Christian freedom.”

Freedom, however, is what the Sabbath is all about. In the hebrew bible, Sabbath is there from the beginning—a part of the story of creation itself, when God rests on the seventh day. Later, the Sabbath becomes an important response to the gift of freedom granted to the people of Israel when God leads them out of slavery in Egypt. For former slaves, to have life structured around a day without work is a constant reminder of the freedom that God intends for us. In the hebrew bible, Sabbath isn’t just a personal time-out; it’s a way of structuring society that includes a seven-year limit on debt accumulation and even a Sabbath rest for animals and soil. By imposing limits on our human striving and acquiring, it teaches us what it means truly to be free.

According to Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. In the world of space, our lives are all about things: getting more things, taking care of all of our things. In our obsession with things, we forget about time. Time becomes only something that we spend to gain things, to get more power over things. The Sabbath, on the other hand, is a “day to mend our tattered lives,” to fill them with what is good and to delight our souls with pleasure, resting in God. When we live in time, in the Sabbath, we are contemporary with one another (1).

I’ll never forget talking with my friend Marie, a Congolese refugee who had recently arrived in the United States. As a single mother in a new land, Marie had to work hard just to put food on the table for her children. As a maid at a hotel, she had no control over her work schedule and no real choice in how she could provide for her children. She didn’t mind hard work, and she was grateful for her job, but she was upset about the lack of Sabbath in this country. In her home culture, she explained, no one works on Sundays. Sunday is a day to spend in worship, in time with family, in rejoicing and delight. It is a pause in the back-breaking grind of poverty, a breath of freedom in lives filled with hard work.

“In America,” she pronounced with disgust and deep sadness, “there is no time for God or for one another.”

What would our lives look like if we kept Sabbath? How would a day without work, a day with family and friends—not just for your family but for all families—how would that change our communities? How would it affect the natural world around us? Imagine with your children a community where time is more precious than things.

This month’s challenge: Send us a photo of a way that your home or city invites Sabbath for you or others, or draw a picture (and photograph it) of an environment that reflects a wise use of resources and time. What would our schools, homes, churches, parks, farmland or shopping areas look like in a world that values time with God and others and sets limits on striving for more and more power, money, and control? Post your image to Instagram with the hashtag #imaginingwholeness. Have your children think of a second hashtag, if they'd like. (If you don’t use Instagram, just email it to me at I will collect the images submitted each month and publish them together on this website. If enough people respond, we will have a composite image that will, I hope, help us all to see our world in a new way, and, perhaps, find new ways of relating with the creation and the Creator!

(1). Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 3.

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