I have encountered this Hebrew creation myth countless times and know it as the origin of the tradition of the Sabbath; and I thought I knew what it meant. But recently I learned something new. I did some deep Biblical homework. I checked out what the original Hebrew word translated as “refreshed” really means.
That original Hebrew word is vaiynafesh, and literally it means, and God exhaled. For six days, God quickens existence and life with a creative inhale, and then on the seventh and last day, God lets it all go, God breathes out and relaxes.
Deep Biblical homework pays off. When you get past standard translations and get to the original meanings of original words, wow. The Bible pops. The Bible sings.
Breathe in, breathe out. From the rhythm of our own personal breathing, we can come to know the rhythm of the fundamental reality in which we live and move and have our being.
This is the reality I would have us dwell on this morning, as we reflect on the spiritual meaning of Labor Day Weekend. Since the 1880s, it has been a time for honoring the working class and advocating for improved working conditions, and that’s the political side of the holiday. But today we are looking at the more spiritual side, represented by the day off from work that traditionally comes on Labor Day Monday.
Begin with an experiment. Inhale deeply. Fill your lungs with air, as far as they will go.
Now don’t stop. Keep on inhaling….
Doesn’t feel so good, right? Welcome to life in modern America, where the inhale-exhale rhythm of creation is out of whack. Today there is a constant flow of intense stimuli and endless information, mediated by satellites with their global reach, cable TV with its hundreds of channels, and the Internet, with its infinite connections. And we inhale it all in, seemingly endlessly, using all the electronic gadgets at our disposal like televisions, smart phones, IPads, laptops, and whatever else we can muster. We inhale Facebook and Twitter and TikTok, we inhale the video feed, we inhale emails, we inhale the images, we inhale the jabber … and we can’t seem to stop inhaling even as we end up feeling manic-depressive and fried and exhausted, feeling like we’re trapped in Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room and can’t get out.
And that’s under normal circumstances. These days, in our abnormal, COVID-19 threatened, socially-distanced world, ZOOM technology is a lifesaver. It really is. There by the grace of livestreaming goes this worship service. These days, we’re inhaling what’s coming through our screens for a very good reason. But it can still make us so tired. We can still end up feeling so ZOOMED out…
The inhale-exhale rhythm is just out of whack, whether the times are normal or not. And then there is this: the endless inhale of choices in our American marketplace. For me this is so well illustrated by something I once encountered at a restaurant called Macaroni Grill. “Create your own primo pasta,” the menu said. “Choose from everyday indulgences that take your pasta creation to new heights.” At this point, I’m rolling my eyeballs. The subtext, I know, is that as a consumer in a postmodern hyper-individualist society, the act of purchasing becomes nothing less than the art of declaring who I am, the art of constructing my personal identity. I am what I buy. But must this be the case when I’m hungry and I just want to eat some Italian? My eye scans the rest of the menu. I see five categories, each with multiple options: sauces, toppings, yummies, the actual type of pasta, and the type of side salad to accompany the dish. In all, there are 38 options to choose from, to take my pasta creation to new heights.
What I do instead is order a cheeseburger.
Enough with the art of declaring just who I am.
The inhale is constant and exhausting. So many things to know, so much need in the world to meet, so many things to do, so many things to choose. And so, like writer Elizabeth Gilbert says, we “multitask like Swiss Army knives.” We text while driving. To-do lists paper our walls. “I am so busy,” we say along with everyone else.
It is the age of overwhelming.
But how did things get this way? What happened to throw the natural inhale-exhale rhythm of creation out of whack?
Perhaps it is the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. For surely we did not intend to fashion a world in which we must inhale endlessly. The original intentions were hopeful and inspiring. Capitalism’s intention was rewarding people for their initiative and hard work and creativity. Technology’s intention was making life easier and raising our standard of living. But intention is one thing; consequences another. The result has been unfortunate, as our spiritual ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, when he said: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
Capitalism ends up in the saddle, and we see what has happened. A system developed in which the driving goal is a never-ending MORE; in which the modus operandi is to create artificial needs; in which people, bred to be needy, bred to be credit-card consumers of the MORE, find themselves on the wheel of work, working like mad, in debt like mad, running just to stand still if not to make the money to buy the things which they will have little to no time to enjoy because they are too busy working. This is what happens when Capitalism ends up in the saddle.
And as for technology, when it ends up in the saddle: Our “labor-saving” devices paradoxically cause us to work even harder than before, even as they arguably lower the quality of our lives. One classic example of this comes from information technologies. Email makes it so easy to reach out and touch someone half a mile away or half a world away. Press send, and maybe within a minute or two, the email has reached its destination. Texting is even easier and quicker. But look at what happens next. The ease and speed of my reaching out to you somehow generates the expectation in me that you should reply sooner rather than later. If you don’t reply within 24 or 48 hours, I feel positively snubbed. Doesn’t matter that you might be getting deluged by emails and texts from all sorts of people. I’m only thinking about you and me.
Why are you ignoring me?
Technology is indeed in the saddle riding humankind. No one can be available to others in an unlimited way–not even a mother can be 100% available to her child–but email and texting so very easily implant the seed of unrealistic expectations in us. The result is indeed a lower quality of life.
Don’t even get me started on how this is true when it comes to our democracy. How the nature of the television medium has shrink-wrapped political discourse into image and sound bite. If a politician can’t explain his or her policies for a complex economy like ours in three sentences or less, he or she is dismissed as incompetent. The goal has become “truthiness” rather than truth. In particular, the relationship between Twitter and politics is simply unholy—I see this as a form of pollution, as destructive to the information sphere as physical pollution is to the natural sphere.
Things are in the saddle. Culminating ultimately, I would argue, in a perfectionistic myth that is diametrically opposed to the inhale-exhale creation myth of the Hebrew Bible. I’m talking about the myth of being a limitless self in a limitless world. The myth of the infinite MORE. The myth that we can keep on living unsustainably without consequences. The myth that we can breathe in and in and in without end….
I see this secular myth as part and parcel of middle-class white supremacy culture which, insidiously, takes root within each of us, becomes an inner voice, the voice of the superego, which is a vicious and relentless inner critic demanding obedience and perfection and commitment to the limitlessness vision. Slack off, and the inner critic punishes you. You try to go the distance, to satisfy the relentless inner critic, and it wears you down physically, your back aches, your sleep is terrible, you can no longer bear the pain, you’re burned out. Burning the candle from both ends. But the kicker is that you might be feeling shame that you’re not up to what your superego is demanding. You might be feeling like a failure. You feel wrong, and the inner superego lets you have it, lets you know how disappointing and disgusting you are.
You’ve let the myth of perfectionism down. Middle-class white supremacy culture is not pleased with you, and it’s letting you know.
What a terrible downward spiral to be caught in.
We are frightfully far away, now, from the natural inhale-exhale rhythm of Creation as we see it in the Hebrew Bible.
We’ve lost our way.
It hurts. It just hurts to never stop inhaling.
In his tremendous book called Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller makes this clear especially with regard to justice work. “I have sat on dozens of boards and commissions,” says Wayne Muller, “with many fine, compassionate, and generous people who are so tired, overwhelmed, and overworked that they have neither the time nor the capacity to listen to the deeper voices that speak to the essence of the problems before them. Presented with the intricate and delicate issues of poverty, public health, community well-being, and crime, our impulse, born of weariness, is to rush headlong toward doing anything that will make the problems go away. Maybe then we can finally go home and get some rest.”
Can you relate? Awareness of the vast problems of the world–desire to make a difference–feeling overwhelmed by all the different voices at the table proposing things to do–and then, out of sheer exhaustion, voting to get to some kind of closure because the meeting has run over by an hour and you just want to get home…. How many of you have ever felt this?
Muller continues, “But without the essential nutrients of rest, wisdom, and delight embedded in the problem-solving process itself, the solution we patch together is likely to be an obstacle to genuine relief. Born of desperation, it often contains enough fundamental inaccuracy to guarantee an equally perplexing problem will emerge as soon as it is put into place. In the soil of a quick fix is the seed of a new problem, because our quiet wisdom is unavailable.”
That’s what Wayne Muller says, and it leads me to think of the enormous problems facing this country and facing the next President. It makes me think of the fine, compassionate, and generous people in this congregation and beyond. There is so much to do, so many needs to meet. And yet, the more needs we try to satisfy all at one time–the more we breathe in, and in, and in–means that the more tempted we are to go for quick fixes, which also means the less likely we are to get to real solutions. The result is that our work for justice and peace is reactive and not thought out–and seeds of future problems are sown.
The Tao Te Ching asks us, “Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” How would we answer? How would this congregation answer? Each of us as families, as individuals?
You’ve heard it said, “Just don’t stand there–do something!” But if Wayne Muller (and the Tao Te Ching) are right, then there are times when it is very appropriate to also say, “Don’t just do something–stand there!” Stand there and take a break and take a breather so you can regain a better perspective on things.
Perhaps this is why, in Judaism, regularly observing the Sabbath is no less than one of the famous 10 Commandments. It’s right up there with “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” like don’t murder, don’t steal, honor your parents, and don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. It’s just as momentous, just as far-reaching, even if, on the surface, it seems … frivolous.
This is exactly how this commandment has seemed to me, in comparison with the others: frivolous. In the past, when I compared this commandment to the others, there would always be this voice from Sesame Street piping up to sing, “One of these things is not like the other….”
Why, I used to think, had the author of the Ten Commandments put “Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” on the same footing of “Thou shalt not murder”? Until I realized that people who lack an intentional practice for rest and spiritual reflection also commit murder, albeit of a special kind: murder of the life force within them; murder of the life force beyond them. Diminishment, depletion, erosion, exhaustion—in our bodies and in the body of our earth.
There is a reason why the Chinese pictograph for the word “busy” brings together two characters: one for heart, and another for killing.
Justice work can’t really be about justice when it’s “busy” in this sense.
The message is clear: like God in the ancient creation myth, we do well to embody the rhythm of inhale and exhale in our lives even as it commits us to doing something that is staggeringly countercultural and flies in the face of our secular world. Judaism teaches this, and so do other major religions around the world. When Muslims enter into their holy season of Ramadan, with its fasting, prayer, and reflection to achieve goals of spiritual and physical cleansing, this definitely resonates with the Jewish Sabbath.
Inhale, and then exhale. Take a deep breath now, fill up your lungs—and release. Relax into the exhale. Be a good steward of the present moment.
For the remainder of this sermon, let’s take a look at how to practice the exhale of the Sabbath—what’s involved.
First thing I’ll share here is my own sense that taking a Sabbath need not occur according to a strict timetable: literally, work six days and on the seventh day you “rest.” For observant Jews, the Sabbath takes place from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. I respect that—and, this Unitarian Universalist chooses to see the Sabbath as more symbolic, as any time when I can step back from the hurly-burly busy-ness of life, whether it amounts to five minutes in the midst of a busy day, or to a stretch of vacation time. However long is available, Sabbath time is Sabbath time.
An analogy comes to mind, that helps me make sense of this for my own life: the analogy of the camel in the desert. Some weeks, work is a seemingly endless path. Remember what Grace said a moment ago about her work? I can relate. I’m not complaining, but I want to be sure I am sufficiently comprehending my situation. So, I like to imagine that I’m like a camel. The path in the sand aiming towards the horizon seems loooong, and I’m going to be walking for a while, and I just thank God for the hump on my back which is filled with water, which sustains me day in and day out. This is what it’s like, some days and some weeks. But then things shift, and the work journey finds a momentary stopping point—and this stopping point is, wonderfully, an oasis. It’s oasis/Sabbath time, now. So, I’m going to enjoy the heck out of that oasis. I need to let myself do that. Sweet water is there, and the shade of palm trees. You better believe I’m splashing in that water. I’m luxuriating in the shade. I’m also going to replenish the hump on my back for the next journey coming up. The oasis is Sabbath time for me, and I’m going to give myself to it fully because I don’t know when the next oasis time will be. Got to make the moment count. Be here now!
That’s my analogy of the camel. Maybe you have your own analogy, describing the rhythm of work and rest for you. The main point though is this: seeing the Sabbath as a strict “one-day-a-week” sort of thing doesn’t ring true for me. Maybe for you as well.
But what is it that people actually “do” on the Sabbath? I’ve danced around that question already in this sermon but I want to give it a straight-ahead answer right now, because people can get the impression that there is supposed to be no doing on the Sabbath. People can think that the Sabbath is supposed to be about doing nothing.
And that’s not really right.
Go back again to the Hebrew scriptures, where we read that “On the seventh day God finished God’s work.” We also read there, over and over again, the refrain: “And God saw that it was good.”
Strictly speaking, the Bible does portray God as doing things on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, but it’s a different sort of doing. It’s not regular creation work but, rather, “finishing the work” and “seeing that it was good.” The ancient rabbis can help us understand. They say that the work of “finishing” and “seeing that it was good” has to do with what they call menuha, which means “the making of gratitude, the making of pleasure, the making of peace.” Creating things is one sort of work; but appreciation of what’s just been created is another sort of work entirely.
God creates appreciation on the seventh day, and without this, the Creation is incomplete and lacking.
One of the more popular Sabbath activities, in fact, is making love. It’s putting aside the maintenance aspect of one’s relationship—folding the laundry, paying the bills, taking the kid somewhere, etc etc–and shifting to a very different place of cherishment. Cherishing and being cherished. Accordingly, there is a tradition among observant Jews that couples are to make love four times during the 24 hours of the Sabbath. Once, Wayne Muller respectfully inquired about this with a friend, and the response was, “No, we make love only once. But, for the other three times, we hold a deep intention.”
It’s the proper work of the Sabbath: remembering what we have come through to get to this point in time, cultivating a spirit of delight, cultivating a spirit of pleasure and gratitude. We’ve worked so hard the past six days (or however many days are involved)—so the Sabbath is about stepping back to appreciate and enjoy. So many ways to open up to this. Sharing stories together. Gardening. Playing games. Dancing. So many possibilities.
And don’t forget about making love!
Worship is yet another way into appreciation and delight. When we are in worship together, we are not busy with our jobs, we are not busy with housework, we are not busy with committee work, but we are instead focused on work of a higher order, which is resisting the false and destructive secular myth of the MORE, and building up inner resistance to its corresponding critical voice in our heads. We are dreaming of a better way the world might be. We are singing, reflecting, mourning, rejoicing, praying and meditating, dwelling in gratitude, committing and recommitting our lives to that which deserves the loyalty of our hearts and spirits. This is the work that finishes our week, just as God’s work of creating tranquility and peace on the seventh day puts the finishing touch on all that God accomplished in the previous six.
Creation would just NOT be good, would NOT be worth living in, would NOT be enough, without the Sabbath. Without the Sabbath, God would find Godself in the same terrible spot so many of us are in today, trapped in the myth of the infinite MORE and compelled to keep on laboring away, into an eighth day, a ninth day, a tenth, an eleventh, and on and on, breathing in and in and in ad infinitum.
But what God created on the seventh day makes the other six ENOUGH, makes them worth living in, makes them GOOD. So, let it be for us. Regularly, let there be a Sabbath time where we turn away from our usual labor and let go for a moment and rest, remembering, appreciating, feeling gratitude. Just breathe out everything we’ve been breathing in. Let it be the oasis that we find refreshment in, spiritual camels that we are.
Give yourself to this higher-level work, which will restore the water-filled hump on your back so that, as you re-enter the next leg of your work journey, you are good to go for days on end—however many those busy days may be.
Above all, don’t let justice work be a chore and a burn-out zone. If it’s feeling like that, then “don’t just do something–stand there.”
Right now: let anxiety about all that is unfinished go. Let worries about all that may yet happen go. Let the whirl of being busy go. Be here now. Look upon the life you are creating with love and compassion. Remember what has brought you this far. Allow gratitude to well up within you. Let gratitude flow in your heart.
I guarantee you, God sees that life is, all things considered, good.
But even more important is that you do.