Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A day of desisting and celebrating

The monthly essay at Mosaic Magazine is "The Ten Commandments: Why the Decalogue Matters," by Leon Kass. In the introductory section:
.... The first few statements proscribe wrongful ways of relating to the divine—no other gods, no images, no vain use of the divine name—while the last six begin with lo, “not.” Human beings, it seems, are more in need of restraint than of encouragement.

In this sea of prohibition, two positive exhortations stand out: the one about hallowing the Sabbath, and the one about honoring father and mother. Hallowing the Sabbath is also one of two injunctions that receive the longest exposition or explanation; the other one concerns images and likenesses. Clearly, these three deserve special attention. ....
Some of what Kass writes about the Sabbath commandment:
Of all the statements in the Decalogue, the one regarding the Sabbath is the most far-reaching and the most significant. It addresses the profound matters of time and its reckoning, work and rest, and man’s relation to God, the world, and his fellow men. Most important, this is the only injunction that speaks explicitly of hallowing and holiness—the special goal for Israel in the covenant being proposed. Here is the relevant text:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work. But the seventh day [is a] Sabbath to the Lord thy God.

Thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, thy son and thy daughter, thy servant and thy maidservant, thy cattle and thy stranger that is within thy gates.

For in six days made the Lord the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them; but He rested on the seventh day; and therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The passage opens with a general statement, specifying two obligations: to remember, in order to sanctify. Next comes an explication of the duty to make holy, comprising a teaching for the six days and a (contrasting) teaching for the seventh. At the end, we get the reason behind the injunction, a reference to the Lord’s six-day creation of the world, His rest on the seventh day, and His consequent doings regarding that day.

Imagine ourselves “hearing” this simple injunction at Sinai. We might find every term puzzling: what is “the Sabbath day”? What does it mean to “remember” it? And what is entailed in the charge, “to keep it holy” or “to sanctify it”? And yet the statement seems to imply that “the Sabbath day” is, or should be, already known to the Israelites. What might they have understood by it?

The word “sabbath” comes from a root meaning “to cease,” “to desist from labor,” and “to rest.” Where, then, have the ex-slaves encountered a day of desisting? Only in their recent experience with manna.

After the exodus from Egypt and their deliverance at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites encounter shortages of water and food, and begin to murmur against Moses’ leadership. Comparing unfavorably their food-deprived new freedom with their well-fed existence in bondage, they long for the fleshpots of Egypt and accuse Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die of hunger. As if waiting for just such discontent, the Lord intervenes even without being asked. He causes manna to rain from heaven for the people to gather, “a day’s portion every day,” not only to tame their hunger but explicitly “that I may prove them, whether they will walk in My law or not.” (Exodus 16:4) The restrictions placed on their gathering are threefold: each should gather only what he and his household need and can eat in a day; there is to be no overnight storage or waste; and there is to be no gathering on the seventh day, for which a double portion will be provided ahead of time on the sixth.

The provision of the manna, and the restrictions attached to its gathering and storage, teach several lessons: the condition of the world is not fundamentally one of scarcity but of plenty, sufficient to meet the needs of each and every human being; there is thus no need to hoard against the morrow or to toil endlessly, grabbing all you can; and there is no need to look upon your neighbor as your rival, who may keep you from a livelihood or whose need counts less than yours. Accordingly, one may—one should—regularly desist from acquiring and provisioning, in an expression of trust, appreciation, and gratitude for the world’s bounty, which one also must neither covet beyond need nor allow to spoil. ....


Aside from their experience of manna, the Israelites may have had another referent for a “Sabbath day.” Before the coming of the Bible, many peoples in the ancient Near East already reckoned time in seven-day cycles connected with the phases of the moon. Among the Babylonians, these seventh days were fast days, days of ill luck, days on which one avoided pleasure and desisted from important projects out of dread of inhospitable natural powers. This was especially the case with their once-a-month Sabbath, shabattu or shapattu, the day of the full moon (i.e., the fourteenth day from the new moon).

Against these naturalistic views, the Sabbath teaching in Exodus institutes a reckoning of time independent of the motion of the heavenly bodies, in which the day for desisting comes always in regular and repeatable cycles and is to be celebrated as a day of joy and benison. ....

What, then, is the duty to remember the Sabbath day? About some matters—such as their previous condition of servitude—the Israelites will be exhorted to keep in mind that which they previously experienced. About the Sabbath day—whose original, of course, no human being could have experienced—the Israelites are told to keep present in their minds that which the Lord is now telling them for the first time. Once they learn the reason behind the injunction, the duty to remember will link their future mindfulness with their recall of the remotest past: the original creation of the world and the beginning, or pre-beginning, of time. Each week, going forward, the children of Israel will be not only recalled to God’s creation of the world but invited symbolically to relive it.

Much later, when Moses repeats the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, he will enjoin the Israelites to “guard” (or “keep” or “observe”; shamor) the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, “as the Lord thy God commanded thee.” (Deuteronomy 5:12) Guarding and keeping are duties for the Sabbath day itself, but remembering it can and should take place all week long, reconfiguring our perception of time and its meaning. Under this radically new understanding, the six days of work and labor point toward and are completed by the seventh day and its hallowing. Mindfulness of sanctified time makes an edifying difference to the manner and spirit in which one lives and works all the time; and the remembered change in the meaning of time transforms and elevates all of human existence. Work is for the sake of a livelihood, but a livelihood has a new meaning when staying alive is seen to have a purpose beyond itself. ....

It is, of course, peculiar to command us to rest as God rested, because it is peculiar to speak of God “resting.” Nevertheless, we can conjecture something of what it might mean.

In the original account of creation, at the end of the sixth day “God saw every thing that He had made and, behold, it was very good.” But the true completion of creation comes on the seventh day, only after the creative work had ceased:
And the heaven and the earth were finished and all their host. And God finished on the seventh day His work which He had made and He desisted on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, because on it He desisted from all His work which God created to make. (Genesis 2: 1-3)
Here there is no talk of resting but only of desisting and, on that account, of blessing and hallowing (or setting apart) the seventh day. A complete world of changeable beings has been brought into being by a divinity Who then completes His creative makings by “standing down.” In this mysterious blessing and hallowing of time “beyond” the world of creative making, God, as it were, makes manifest in the rhythm of the world itself that mysterious aspect of Being that is beyond change.

Remarkably, this consecration of time—and this pointing to what is “out of time”—is something we (and only we) humans can glimpse and participate in. It is open to us if and when we set aside our comings and goings, and turn our aspirations toward the realm beyond motion from which motion derives. It is open to us when we are moved by wonder and gratitude for the existence of something rather than nothing, for order rather than chaos, and for our unmerited presence in the story. ....

The existence of Sabbath rest thus offers a partial reprieve from the sentence of unremitting toil and labor prophesied by the Lord at the end of the story of the Garden of Eden—a “punishment” of the human attempt to become like gods, knowing good and bad, undertaken in an act of disobedience. According to that account, our prideful human penchant for independence, self-sufficiency, and the rule of autonomous human reason led us into a life that, ironically, would turn out to be nasty, brutish, and short. This is still very much our lot. But here, with Sabbath desisting, we are not only permitted, we are in fact obliged regularly to cease the life of toil, sorrow, and loss and to accept instead the god-like possibility of quiet, rest, wholeness, and peace of mind. .... [more]
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