The following is a “D’var Torah” – an essay written by me, but inspired by the weekly Torah Portion. Though it comments on a 3000 year old, classic Jewish text, the I hope the message is current and universal… Although it’s really for teachers.
A few days ago, after a particularly challenging day at work, after the commute home, after the schlep up the stairs, the first thing I did was to drop my stuff in a heap by the door. Briefcase, jacket, tie. An hour later, I’d eaten half a bag of Trader Joe’s snack, checked my email eight times, and watched the latest You Tube “must-see cat videos.”
The thing is, I still didn’t feel rested, I didn’t feel nourished. Naturally, I was happy not to be at work, but I wasn’t exactly happy to be at home, either. I made some phone calls, I lay on the sofa and spaced out, I was suspended between exhaustion and chasing a feeling of relaxation I couldn’t quite achieve.
As it turned out, that feeling persisted until well into night-time. I made a mental note to myself.
“Rest and relaxation are not the same thing.”
As I posted this note in my head, I found a bunch of other Post-Its there. Surprise, they all said the same thing. Apparently, I’ve learned and relearned this lesson many times. I am tempted, in the first moment of freedom, to let everything go, not in a Zen way, but in an uncontrolled way, a drop everything and pretend the world doesn’t exist way.
Ironically, my most restful after-work hours are spent in a bustling café, drinking coffee, people watching, and journaling. I’m still in my work clothes, my tie, but I am at peace.
The key to understanding this paradox is found in the wisdom of this week’s Torah Portion:
Leviticus 25:1-5 TNK Leviticus 25:1 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: 2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD. 3 Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. 4 But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest [Shabbat Shabbaton], a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
This ancient Mizvah (commandment) goes far beyond the practical “laying fallow” of modern agriculture. The Miztvah is not just to desist from planting. It is to actively achieve a “Shabbat Shabbaton” – an extreme rest. It is not about stopping something. It is about starting something new.
My hour in the café, writing or drawing, turning on the right side of my brain, is about rejuvenating a part of myself that has been on hold during the busy work day. The Land of Israel transitions, during the Jubilee Year, from being used for production, to being a sacred space with its own spiritual value. Likewise, I can experience the joy of being separate from my value as a producer: not by letting go, but by celebrating.
This is, on the one hand, the essence of Shabbat. A time to celebrate the joy of being. And at this time of the school year, this is what our students have at their fingertips… two months to enjoy the celebration of being. The challenge is: will they know the difference between relaxing and rest?
We should be blessed to know and show what rest looks like. We should be blessed to guide our students towards experiences that nourish. We should be rejuvenated from our time with family and friends.
And still, we can leave time for You Tube piano-playing cats.