A Sabbath for the Birds

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
Exodus 20:8

I woke up after my first night in the “purity tent”to a chorus of songbirds and the 7:45 out of Atlanta.

I felt cold and crampy and damp from the morning dew, but the soft purple light and the scent of grass and earth calmed me enough to lie in my sleeping bag a for a while and listen to the world wake up.

Today, on Holy Saturday, I would observe the Sabbath. Not the doze-off-in-your-armchair-with-your-laptop-on-while-watching-Sunday-afternoon-football Sabbath that the Christians observe, nor the go-ahead-and-take-a-long-bath-because-you-deserve-a-treat-once-a-week Sabbath that the self-help culture observes, but the stop-whatever-you’re-doing-and-know-that-God-is-God Sabbath that Jews have observed for more than three thousand years.

The Sabbath is as old as Creation, for according to the Torah, after six days of assigning function to the elements of the cosmos, God spent the seventh day in a state of divine, sovereign rest, fully inhabiting his Temple of the universe.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” God instructed the Children of Israel in the Ten Commandments. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8–11 niv updated).  

So critical was this command to the preservation and protection of Israel that God instructed his people to “observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant” (Exodus 31:16; emphasis added).

Indeed, Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’Am once said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” There is perhaps nothing more central to Jewish life than this weekly reminder of God’s presence in the world and his covenant with the people of Israel. Observant Jews spend days preparing for each Sabbath, buying and cooking all their food ahead of time, hurrying to tie up loose ends to ensure that every possible temptation to work or to benefit from the work of others is eliminated before the sun sets on Friday night. In Judaism, time is sacred, and “the Sabbaths,” said Polish-born rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “are our great cathedrals.” On the Sabbath, everything that is unessential bows to that which endures. On the Sabbath, one is not meant to do, but to be.

In addition to the broad prohibition against working, the Torah lists four specific restrictions for the day of rest—no cooking, no carrying, no lighting a fire, and no encouraging others to work. From these, the rabbis who complied the Mishnah derived a list of thirty-nine prohibitions that forbade everything from harvesting to washing to knitting to writing to erasing to tearing to untying. Later rabbinic literature would add even more.

Contemporary Jews who observe a strict Sabbath will, for twenty-four hours each week, refrain from doing any business, spending any money, tackling the to-do list, riding in cars, talking on the phone, or using electricity. (That means no Internet and no TV.) The Sabbath is not simply a day off;  it’s an entirely different mode of being, a divine interruption meant to realign the disparate fragments of the will with God, with his creation, and with one another.

I figured this would be a good time to observe a real Sabbath, seeing as how I was living in a tent without electricity anyway. Deliberate rest is a spiritual exercise that someone like me desperately needs, which I suppose is why I continually resist it. I’m an affirmation junkie, hooked on a destructive cycle of striving, success, praise, and disappointment. The popularity of the blog had not helped matters, for in a given day I had about forty-nine ways to evaluate, through cold hard numbers, my worth as a  human being—page views, unique visitors, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, shares, comments, ad revenue, Amazon rank—and to compare those numbers to others. When my numbers started to slip, I got panicky. When they rose again, I felt euphoric. When another blogger went viral, I got jealous. When I was in the spotlight, I got proud. And on the Internet, all of this might happen within a matter of hours.

My hero, Madeleine L’Engle, once wrote, “I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it . . . When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being, there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.”

I knew that, for the health of my soul, I needed “being” time, and so on this day—in my “red tent,” wearing my modest clothes, eating my kosher foods—I would take it.

I’d prepared all my food for the day ahead of time, most of it leftovers from Passover. I usually do most of my eating in front of a screen—the computer for breakfast and lunch, the TV for dinner. But on this Sabbath, I did only one thing at a time, so for the first twenty minutes of the day, I focused on breakfast. I watched the steam rise like a playful ghost from my coffee cup. I studied the swirls of peanut butter on my matzo, remembering from their sloppy patterns the haste with which I’d prepared it. I chewed each piece slowly, deliberately, running my tongue over the roof of my mouth after every bite. I whispered the prayer, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” and smiled as a mockingbird attempted his best bluejay impersonation from a nearby telephone wire.

I read for a while from The Red Tent, and for the first time noticed that my copy, a used one from Amazon, included an inscription on the back of the front cover that said, “To Hannah—4th of July 2003, our little secret, ‘the red tent’—Love you, Mom” in loopy, red letters. I allowed myself to sit there and wonder about Hannah and her mother, to make up stories about their relationship and about what went down on the July 4, 2003. They would make excellent characters in an Anne Taylor novel, I decided.

When it got stuffy in the tent, I opened up the flap and allowed the clean, spring air to pour in. I thought I heard Dan moving around the kitchen, and sure enough, he opened the front door and shouted, “Morning, hon! Did you survive the night?”

I spent the rest of the morning watching Pip hunt insects for her babies. Pip is some kind of wren that builds a nest in our carport every spring. Each year she has about six babies that pile on top of one another in the nest and worry us sick until one morning when suddenly, they’ve all disappeared. Having once lost a family of Carolina wrens living in our grill to a cat, we are heavily invested in the survival of Pip and her family.

Before my Sabbath, I’d only observed little snippets of Pip’s life, when I’d watch her scope out the front yard from the porch railing by the window or roost protectively over her brood when we’d pull into the carport late at night. But today I realized that Pip had a routine, jumping from her nest to the front porch railing, from the front porch railing to the yard, from the yard to the garbage cans, and from the garbage cans back to the nest. I admired the precision with which she dove to the ground to catch her prey and smiled at the little tuft of feathers on the top of her head that distinguished her from her mate. When that mockingbird started to give her trouble, she flitted on by, keeping her head high. She’s got no time for that sort of drama with a nest of baby birds to feed.

This morning, I paid attention.

I read a while longer before eating a lunch of leftover charoset and chicken/turkey cutlets. It started to get pretty hot in the tent, so I cheated and took a nap in the guest room for a while, where I benefited from the convenience of electricity. But I successfully avoided any use of the computer, TV, phone, and kitchen appliances (besides the refrigerator), and I did my best to avoid untying or erasing or lifting anything. Strangest of all, I went an entire day without writing . . . anything. No notes, no lists, no blog posts, no books, no phone numbers, no underlines, no recipes. This proved to be the most challenging, yet redemptive, part of the day, for it forced me to exist without justifying that existence by the words I create from it. It forced me to simply be.

When people ask me what I do, I respond by telling them who I am.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

But today I am not. Today I am something apart from what I do, what I produce, and suddenly, just like Madeleine said, I am listening—to myself, to Pip, and maybe to God. I realize, as if for the first time, that somehow the world moves around with or without me.

Dan spent some time with me outside that afternoon, listening politely as I filled him in on the avian politics of our front yard, careful to keep a distance so we didn’t touch. At dusk, I sat outside my tent and waited for three stars to appear in the darkened sky, signaling the official end of the Sabbath. At this moment, most observant Jews hold a havdalah (literally, “separation”) service to separate the Holy Sabbath from the rest of the week. They drink a glass of wine and light a braided candle to indicate that it is now permissible to light a fire. Then they pass around a decorative container of sweet spices called b’samin, which allows the sweetness of the Sabbath to linger for just a few moments longer.

According to Jewish tradition, on the Sabbath we are given an extra soul, a neshamah yeteirah, that doubles our capacity for spiritual insight and connectedness. Of all the five senses, smell is the only one that impacts the soul, so the scent of the b’samin is meant to comfort the one soul we have left as the other departs for another six days.

Indeed, I was sadder than I expected to be that night, and I think I felt my neshamah yeteirah sail off into the darkening sky as my day of rest concluded and the fourth star appeared on the horizon.

I wondered if I would ever get it back again.

The reasons Christians rarely observe a strict Sabbath (or the laws of family purity, for that matter), is because they make a distinction between the covenant of the Law and the covenant of grace, believing that Jesus, by fulfilling the Law, made the rules and regulations of the Old Testament unnecessary for salvation. As the apostle Paul told the Romans, who were busy arguing about whether or not Gentiles needed to become Jews before they could become Christians, “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code . . . Sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 7:6; 6:14 niv updated).

Indeed, Jesus earned a reputation for speaking out against the first-century abuses of Jewish law used to criticize him for healing the sick on the Sabbath, criticism that missed the spirit of the law entirely by becoming enslaved to the letter. But in our hurry to distance ourselves from the stricter and the stranger elements of what we somewhat dismissively refer to as the Old Testament, we Christians tend to forget that both Jesus and Paul spoke also of the value of the law, the freedom and joy that disciplined adherence to its spirit can bring. That night, as I crawled into my sleeping bag, feeling more rested and more whole than I’d felt in a long time, I knew in a way that I hadn’t known before that we had created a false dichotomy, that sometimes the law is grace.