This morning when I woke up, I looked out the window and turned to my wife and said, “Do you hear that?” She wasn’t sure what I was referring too. I said, “that noise – the freeway. It’s back.” For the last many weeks the world has been quiet. The loudest noises coming from the neighborhood were birds chirping and the sound of children playing in the street. But this morning, for the first time in many days the low whooshing din of the freeway traffic was making its way back onto my internal sound mixer.
The city is waking up again, little by little.
But what are we waking up to? What world are we returning to inch-by-inch as we all figure out how to support ourselves and our families? When I talk to congregants and others in my community and I ask them this question, I’m finding that their answers fall into two camps. The first says, “things at some point will be as they were before,” and the other says, “things will never be the same.” To put it more starkly, some say we never change, and some say all there is now is change.
Perhaps it’s both.
I don’t think the needs we have as people over the course of our history have changed all that much. We need safety and community. We need prosperity. We need purpose and meaning. We need connection. The tools we use, the technology that we harness to meet our needs might be what changes. The automobile replaced the horse and buggy because it met the need to move and transport goods and people more quickly. The discoveries that led to the rise of modern medicine allow us to live longer and healthier. The cell phone enabled communication across the globe instantly. Before and after the auto we still needed to connect. Before and after modern medicine we wanted to live. Before and after the computer we wanted to hear and be heard. Our needs don’t change, but our means do. The world is waking up again, this is our disruptive moment, perhaps the only time in our lifetime, to reflect how we live our lives and how our lives shape our world and each other. What we decide to do in these next few months could shape the world for the next many years.
I find so much energy from my tradition in these disruptive moments. It’s very powerful to me that our most ancient of texts, the Torah, knows the immortal questions that lurk within each of us and tries to answer those questions in many different ways. Take the Sabbath, for example. The idea that each of us needs to rest, to reset, and to take a look at our lives and let the world be for just a moment meets the very real human need for meaning and connection. Without Shabbat, every day feels like every other. Without a Sabbath you risk becoming defined by your work instead of the other way around. When the very idea of rest is pulled away from the human conscience, you risk being a slave to production, valued only for your productivity and cast aside when you can perform. Rest is needed for work as much as work creates the need for rest. Shabbat, the Sabbath, is what makes us human.
In the Torah, there are three words associated with mitzvah or command to perform Shabbat. The first is found in Exodus where we are commanded to “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” in remembrance of creation. (Ex. 20:7-9) The last time Shabbat is commanded to the people is in Deuteronomy. “Guard the Sabbath as the Lord has commanded you,” as a historical marker of the Exodus from Egypt (Deut 5:12). Both of these commandments use active verbs telling us to “remember” and “guard” Shabbat. The idea being that God, who created the first Sabbath, asks that you become a caretaker of a precious gift given to you for safekeeping. In both cases, (Exodus and Deuteronomy) Shabbat is something to be preserved and protected.
In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, the energy and focus is very different. “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, My sacred meeting times (heb. mo’adai) which you declare as holy, these are My sacred meeting times. (Lev. 23:2) In Leviticus, the energy is not about remembering or guarding Shabbat, but a declaration of Shabbat. The Sabbath in Leviticus is not something comes from “out there” but from within each of us. It is something we create and declare. Rest is not something to be discovered, it is something created. This is the radical thesis of Leviticus: your life is yours to fashion, and if you want to be a slave to the world,you may, but if you want to live a holy life – a life of meaning and connection, then you must create a holy rhythm in life, including rest.
As the world is waking up, and we get back to work, the world we will all go back to will only be the one we decide to create. It can be exactly as it was before, with all its blessings and problems. Or it can be a new world, with new means to connect us, to protect us, to make us better. If Judaism has anything to teach us, it is that we must always and at all times sake off our complicity. Live actively. Live vividly. Create the future and declare it holy.
Stay home, stay safe, stay healthy and stay loving.