“Seriously, it’s 2016,” people say (or whatever year it happens to be) when they are talking about an idea they feel is outmoded. It’s widely assumed that we live in a modern age and things that are not modern, such as a 3,300-year old Jewish ritual like Shabbat observance, should be tucked away in a box. The box holds things worthy of looking at occasionally as old-fashioned curiosities, but not to be taken seriously.
Even as a kid I couldn’t help myself from feeling there was a flaw in this kind of thinking. Sure, technology has sped up the pace of our lives, but in terms of real change, I don’t believe there’s any difference in the way we experience life.
Here’s the thing: Nothing about the way we humans feel about life has fundamentally changed. Fathers love their daughters the same way today as they did in the distant past, the sun was bright back in 1916, too, and it burned your eyes if you stared at it too long. The touch of a loving hand on the skin of a person in 1416 felt identical to the way it feels on our skin in 2016. The worried face of the moon still looks exactly the same, and a November wind on our neck feels just like it has since time immemorial.
To say that something as central as the regulated cessation of creative effort – which is in essence, what Shabbat is about – so that one can focus on what one has already achieved, is somehow old-fashioned, is to miss the larger point. Shabbat is by nature, timeless. It cuts to the essence of what we humans lack: A regular, ritualized, systematized, and totally volitional day of reflection.
Any musician or painter knows that as important as it is to be immersed in the sound of a symphony, or to be captivated by images put down on canvas, it is equally important to step away from the music and the painting and to observe with clarity and renewed objectivity, just what has been created. Surely if the best art accurately reflects life, the best of life must also accurately reflect itself in the artistic process. Shabbat brings us this very ability—a capacity to step away and better see life, not as a series of compartmentalized actions, but as a complete thing, as a unified whole.
I was recently involved in a creativity symposium in San Francisco with several interesting folks, among them was a guy named Bill Wasik, former editor of Wired magazine. Bill and I spoke about this idea of stepping back, specifically as it related to technology, and how the rituals of Shabbat echoed a very important, if often missing, dimension of technology itself; our ability to shut it off. Not just to shut it off once a year, or for a few moments throughout a day, but by a regular, systematized means. Bill mentioned to me that Shabbat observance pointed not to some ancient and irrelevant past, but to a decidedly post-modern view of our integration with technology.
Ok, I know I promised you the list of five reasons, so here goes:
One. Shabbat observance is wonderful for children.
Shabbat is time away from iPhones and computers and errands and shopping and every conceivable distraction. Children hunger for one thing, the full and loving attention of their parents. To give them this gift on a regular, reliable, un-cancelable basis is to give them a gift no amount of money can provide.
Two. Shabbat observance is a huge boon to marriage.
This is true for the exact reasons I’ve listed above. We humans hunger to be heard, to be seen, and to be known. I believe that we are all suffering from a debilitating lack of just this kind of attention giving and attention getting.
One can screw up Shabbos of course, just as one can play the violin poorly; I realize that. I mention this obvious fact for anyone who might suggest that Shabbat is no panacea. I agree whole-heartedly. One can ignore someone or mistreat someone in many ways, even while technically observing the laws of Shabbat. But the point is that just as it’s impossible to make music without an instrument, it is impossible to create a loving environment without making space and time for love to flourish. Shabbat provides that space.
Three. Shabbat is good for recharging our creativity.
It’s a rule of physics that two things cannot occupy the same space and just as this axiom applies to things, it also applies to ideas. We need to create an empty space through the cessation of our creative endeavors, so that new inspirations can take hold.
I’ve seen this idea played out in my own creative work over the course the last thirty years. At times I feel as if I’ve tapped into some indefatigable wellspring of invention – and while I have no empirical proof – I believe my observance of Shabbat has had a great deal to do with this.
Four. Shabbat observance will slow the pace of life.
As I mentioned above, I don’t think that our lives are any slower paced than lives were in 1816. Life is by nature finite, and therefore fast-paced. Adopting the rhythms of Shabbat-time into our week has the same effect as breathing slowly, decelerating our lives, both mentally and physically. The world feels chaotic; we all sense it. It feels out of control on so many levels, and it too often seems that we are being pushed along by demands and situations, rather than being able to guide the course of our own lives.
I’ve used these words several times in this piece but it’s important to repeat them – regular, systematized, un-cancelable, un-changing; Shabbat is a bedrock in time that cannot be moved aside for anything other than life-threatening situations.
When I got my first recording contract in 1987, just a year after my father died, I decided that I would begin to protect my most valuable resource. That resource wasn’t artistic control, or the power to decide what my record jackets would look like, (though I had those as well), it was my time. I made it known to everyone I was working with that I would not perform on Shabbat no matter what the reason.
It wasn’t as if my convictions weren’t tested. There were several slots on the “Tonight Show” that I turned down, opportunities to open for Sting and other top artists that I waived away – all because these opportunities, while presumably good for my career, would have violated my observance of Shabbat. As a consequence, my understanding of time as something precious, something that belonged to me (and later, my family) alone, would have been violated, too.
Five. Shabbat helps us acquire a mature perspective on life.
As children we couldn’t help but be burdened by our unfulfilled desires. We wanted the things we wanted and waiting, for any length of time, just wouldn’t do. Our immature minds were not yet sophisticated enough to realize that staving off a momentary pleasure for a longer-term gain would, in the end, bring us far more pleasure.
Now you may think, as I often do, “Hey, I’m an adult, and I know damn well I haven’t mastered any of that stavin-off pleasure s*&t.” True, most of us will spend the rest of our lives sharpening our skills in that area, but the difference is that the vast majority of us have come to understand at least, that while we might not be perfect at delaying our gratification, diligent practice in this area is, nonetheless, a worthy effort.
To me Shabbat is about honing a sense of having arrived. We must all work and strive, of course, but we also need to feel as if we’ve come home again, come back to some midpoint from which we see life from a broader, richer perspective.