R. Simeon b. Pazzi said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi in Bar Kappara’s name: He who observes [the practice of] three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three evils: the travails (birthpangs) of the Messiah, the retribution and judgment of Gehinnom, and the wars of Gog and Magog.
In spite of appearances, there is something quite profound being hinted at here, something which connects our conceptions of Shabbat, Time and Apocalyptic thinking.
I do not read this as teaching that we will be literally saved from three actual future events. Rather, if we manage to immerse ourselves in Shabbat sufficiently, if we allow it to teach us what it means to be properly oriented and rooted in this-worldliness, then we will be spared from the anxieties of the apocalypse.
We will be spared from them because we will cease to think of them, because we will overcome that tendency so ingrained in us to ignore the positivity and possibility in our immediate surroundings. All too often, we allow our desires and hopes to become suspended, helplessly, in the future.
And let us make no mistake, we all have our personal versions of Gehinnom, of Gog and Magog, our deepest and most concerning worries about what might be in the future, about what might befall us, about what we might lack.
And I would not contend for one second that these fears are without foundation, without good and sensible justification.
But the very fact that they are so real, so alive, so tangible – this is the reason why we would do so well to detach from them, to loosen their grip on us, to stop them from ruining our present.
Shabbat comes to help us with this, to weaken the sense that we are omnipotent and can fully control our future. It creates a nurturing space wherein we are forced to stop doing and encouraged to concentrate on simply being.
In the passage from Genesis we say at Kiddush on Friday night, we are told that:
On the seventh day, God ceased the work which he had done
And he rested on the seventh day from the work that he had done. (Gen. 2:2)
At a first glance, this sounds quite repetitive, but on reading it carefully, I hear the idea that there is a difference between ‘ceasing to work’ and ‘resting from work’.
To cease is physical, is objective; it is easily defined and can be legislated for.
To rest from work is a more subtle thing; it is a state of mind, a loosening of the soul, a challenge to the personality. It is the injunction to leave behind the worry and stress which drive us throughout the week, which perpetually propel us in our worldly enterprise.
The word Shabbat is taken from this latter concept, it is about ‘resting from’, and in doing so, finding peace.
I feel this might somehow sound trite, that the idea might seem a little bit simplistic. But I am convinced that we don’t quite get how bound up with the future we actually are, how detrimentally our thinking is affected by a strange contradiction of aspiration and anxiety.
We allow ourselves to become trapped in instrumental thinking, believing that we’re always doing something in order to get to the next thing, to progress, to get promoted, to become wiser. It’s like an addiction, and it’s a never ending battle to escape from its grasp, to simply exist in the moment, to savour the delectable peace in standing still and connecting with our own depths.
This too can become clichéd, but there really is a sense that all this worry, all this future oriented concern, keeps us on the surface, in the external world, and keeps us utterly distracted and distant from what’s really going on in our selves, in our unconscious.
And again, the unconscious is not some storehouse of dreams, symbols and fantasises, a censored version of consciousness. It’s a river of molten lava, a fluid and dynamic energy field; it is the source of all the originality, spontaneity and authenticity that we bring into life.
It’s not simply the stuff we’ve repressed, that’s just a small part of it. It’s where brain, body and mind meet in a pre-conscious and non-articulate way, the site of an indomitable individuality which will only ever be partially integrated into language, culture and society.
It is what is absolutely real for every individual, and which every manner of anxious and neurotic defence try to keep us away from.
It is intimately connected with desire, with the heart’s desire, and it is striking that we are instructed to connect with Shabbat through engaging with nothing less than desire. In the passage above we are rewarded not for meditating and spiritually contemplating the essence of Shabbat, but through eating three meals, through refreshing our body with the simple delight of desirable food.
The next passage develops this further:
Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: He who delights in the Sabbath is granted his heart’s desires, for it is said: ‘Delight thyself also in the Lord; And he shall give thee the desires of thine heart’ (Ps 37.4).
Now, I do not know what this ‘delight’ refers to; but when it is said: ’And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight’ (Isaiah 58.13), you must say that it refers to the delight of the Sabbath.
Not only is the injunction here to ‘delight’ in Shabbat, but the very reward that is promised is the granting of the ‘desires of the heart’.
To be in touch with desire, to be alert to the soul’s longing and questing, ‘mishalot libekha’ as it is in the Hebrew, is to be freed from the enslavement of the future, of the tendency to imagine our own personal apocalypse.
And there is a subtle but important qualification here, to be connected and comfortable with one’s unique and individual desire is not necessarily to be a hedonist, to be nihilistically chasing all manner of physical gratification. It can very often be the case that to be trapped in the cycle of chasing and craving a specific form of gratification can actually be another form of defence from facing up to one’s genuine and deeper desire. It can be a bulwark against the authentically personal way in which one needs to live creatively, to express one’s being in the world.
Desire is about knowing one’s depths; not about reacting to one’s surface.
It is about being able to bear the present, about not needing to hide in concerns about the future.
The liberating effect of desire is also suggested by another part of the Talmudic discussion today:
R. Johanan said in R. Jose’s name: He who delights in the Sabbath is given an unbounded heritage, for it is written, Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father.
Delighting in Shabbat adjusts the character of our world, it broadens us, loosens the tightness of our worry, allows the expression and energy of our desire to flow more easily. Something about our existence becomes unbounded, freer; more playful and spontaneous. And all of these benefits will help guard us against seduction by the future.
This train of thought also allows us to better understand the idea that Shabbat is ‘Me-ein Olam Haba’, a foretaste of the World to Come. It is not that Shabbat is a sample of some future world; rather, learning to dwell in the present creates the possibility of experiencing a time related redemption in everyday life. The structure of our relationship with time changes, the future is experienced as the healthy offshoot of our being in the present, not as the neurotic source of our disregarding the present. The future is driven by the present, and not the other way round.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that ‘olam haba’, and the similar phrase ‘chayeii olam’, do not refer to some kind of afterlife, to some supernatural other world. Rather, they refer to the way that we experience our time and our activities in this world, to the openness and possibility that are embodied by the way we live in the moment.
Do our actions open us to greater levels of relatedness, engagedness, or do they deaden us, restricting us to a limited and enclosed terrain?
This is the sense in which ‘olam haba’ – the world of becoming – is something worth trying to attain, to become attuned to.
Song is a vital part of the delight of Shabbat, and one of my favourites, the 11th century Ma Yedidut, gives poetic expression to many of these themes. In a famous line the author declares:
Your wants are forbidden, as is the making of future oriented calculations.
Desire, however, is permitted.
This gap between the pettiness of our wants and the eternal profundity of our desire, the endless mystery it contains, is something with which Shabbat tries to enlighten us.
May we blessed with the delight of many Shabbatot, and may we learn from them how to live confidently and securely in a desire-enriched present.