If asked to pick one aspect of Jewish spiritual tradition that was the most important, the most valuable, the most genuinely impactful, it would be no contest. I’d answer without hesitation: it’s Shabbat.
Shabbat just looms so large and is so basic to the Jewish experience, I don’t think we stop enough to consider how revolutionary it truly is. Once a week, Shabbat arrives to overturn the status quo. While the High Holidays represents our annual spiritual shake-up, Shabbat provides us with this radical reboot opportunity every single week.
Jewish tradition gives us multiple rationales for keeping Shabbat: it’s a day of rest and renewal, a day to refrain from the creative work of the week, a day for drawing a distinction between the sacred and mundane. It’s also been called a weekly taste of Olam Haba – or “the World to Come.” The Talmud, for instance, teaches that Shabbat is one sixtieth of Olam Haba. A classic midrash relates that at the moment God gave the Torah to the Israelites, they asked, “Sovereign of the Universe, show us an example of the World to Come,” and God replied, “It is Shabbat.”
So, what exactly is this World to Come that we get to taste every Shabbat? The rabbis don’t give us any definite answers to this question. In classical Jewish sources, it’s a general term for the hereafter, a place where the souls of the righteous go after they die. In other instances, the World to Come is synonymous with the messianic age: a future time in which the dead will be resurrected and the world will be united under the rule of God.
But we do know this: whatever Olam Haba might look like, it will definitely be better than the world we’re living in now. In the Talmud, for instance, we read this classic description:
The World to Come is not like this world. In the World to Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no business negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence.(Berachot 17a)
In recent years there’s been an emergent new reframing of Olam Haba, particularly in leftist and radical corners of the Jewish community. According to this new approach, the World to Come is viewed in the context of social and political transformation: a vision of a world in which systems of oppression have been dismantled and replaced by systems that work for the well- being of all.
I personally view this vision of Shabbat as being deeply informed by the contemporary abolitionist movement. Those who are active in this movement will immediately understand this. When abolitionist activists call for defunding the police and dismantling the prison industrial complex, we’re not merely advocating for specific political goals: we’re ultimately promoting a larger vision of the world as it should be. The great abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba, describes it this way:
Abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.from “We Do This ‘Til They Free Us”, by Mariame Kaba, p. 2.
Like the traditional Olam Haba, abolitionist Olam Haba isn’t just an ethereal, aspirational concept: it’s meant quite literally. It doesn’t mean “the world we dream might be possible” or “the world we know is not possible but in the meantime maybe we can reform the world to make it a little less horrible.” When contemporary abolitionists talk about transforming oppressive systems, we are advocating for a vision that is practical and real. It’s rooted in the belief that we have the wherewithal to build a world that will work for all, not just a privileged few.
For those who view Shabbat this way, every seventh day is nothing short of a weekly revolution – a regular opportunity to live in the world we know is possible. Ana Levy-Lyons, describes it this way in her essay, “Sabbath Practice as Political Resistance:”
The goal of a Sabbath practice is not to patch us up and send us back out to the violent secular world, but to represent in the now what redemption looks like, what justice looks like, what a compassionate social order looks like. It is to reconstruct the rest of time from the viewpoint of the Sabbath as unjust and untenable.
While this is a compelling new understanding of Shabbat, it’s worth asking: what would such a Shabbat practice actually look like? What would it mean to observe it? Can we observe Shabbat in a way that honors these values of political resistance? I think it’s altogether appropriate to explore these questions tonight, on Yom Kippur – the day when we vow together that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. What better time than Yom Kippur to think seriously about what we must do to make the World to Come a reality?
I’ll start here: Shabbat challenges us to rethink the way we commodify time itself. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, famously wrote in his classic book, “The Sabbath,” on Shabbat we become attuned to the holiness of time rather than space. During the six days of the week, we find meaning in the creative endeavors of the material world – but when Shabbat arrives, we affirm the sanctity inherent in the rhythms of time.
But we can only do this if we are prepared to give up our futile attempts to dominate time. This is particularly challenging in a capitalist society, in which time itself has become monetized – in which our worth is literally determined by the amount of time we spend at work. Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi refers to the six days of the week as “commodity time.” “Commodity time,” he writes, “is the price we pay for organic time. In order to earn a living, this is the bargain you strike: you give your employer work, in return for which he gives you money. While you are working, your time belongs to your employer, and it’s used to create commodities of one sort or another.”
But on Shabbat, we’re commanded to resist the commodification of time. It’s a weekly reminder that when we attempt to control or profit from time, we will inevitably become enslaved by it. In the World to Come, time may not be sold, spent, measured or exploited. On the contrary, it must be valued and cherished and savored. On Shabbat we stop punching the time clock and live according to the organic rhythms of time, from sundown to sundown.
Is it even possible to imagine non-commodified work? Over the past two decades, there’s been increased social and economic theorizing about a world without jobs. As machines and robotics are able to do more jobs previously done by human beings, there’s been renewed advocacy of a future in which a universal basic income is guaranteed, a future in which people are free to spend their time doing what they find purposeful and meaningful. This vision has become even more relevant and critical in the age of COVID, as record numbers of Americans are working at low wage jobs and the cost of living continues to rise. The pandemic has given rise to a new and unprecedented discourse on the meaning of work – and we should welcome this conversation.
The Shabbat prohibition on commerce and transactions suggests another way to observe Shabbat as a form of revolution. When we engage in transactions with others, we do so with the expectation that we’re entitled to receive something in return. Shabbat, however, rejects the transactional in favor of the relational. These are the most sacred relationships: the ones that are based on the building of trust – that favor long-term fulfillment over immediate gain. This is why on Shabbat, the traditional focus is on the most basic forms of human interaction: on communal meals, prayer and study, on physical intimacy between lovers. In the World to Come, relationships will not be exploitative or negotiable – they will, rather, model devekut – sacred at one-ness and coming together.
A third suggestion: It’s been suggested that there are profound connections between Shabbat and the values of the disability justice movement. One of the central Principles of Disability Justice, affirms that the labor of disabled people is too often invisible to a system that defines labor by able-bodied standards. The disability justice movement makes this point very clearly and unabashedly: “our worth is not dependent on what and how much we can produce.”
This principle is rooted in one of the most basic values in Jewish tradition: that every human being is created in the image of God – b’stelem elohim. As Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a prominent Jewish disability justice activist has written,
Jewish tradition affirms that the measure of a person’s worth does not rest upon what they can do, how much they produce, or how quickly they think. For all that our tradition praises right action, our fundamental value as people does not depend on our accomplishments or achievements; it is rooted in our very being. We all of us mirror the image of God.
Another one of the Principles of Disability Justice has a direct connection to the values of Shabbat: the principle of sustainability:
We learn to pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long-term. We value the teachings of our bodies and experiences, and use them as a critical guide and reference point to help us move away from urgency and into a deep, slow, transformative, unstoppable wave of justice and liberation.
This is Shabbat wisdom through and through. On Shabbat, we, all of us, learn to pace ourselves, to be sustained for the long term. And what better definition of the World to Come could there be than a “deep, slow, transformative, unstoppable wave of justice and liberation?”
A fourth and final suggestion: the traditional laws of Shabbat require us to cease our exploitation of the earth’s natural resources. There are many categories of forbidden work on Shabbat, for instance, that involve changing, transforming and extracting. In the World to Come, of course, the resources of the natural world will be nurtured to enhance life, not exploited for profit.
Jewish scholar Jonathan Schorsch, who has founded an initiative called the “Green Sabbath Project, has written extensively about this idea. As Schorsch puts it:
Shabbat can and must be a radical ritual within which we can digest anew the biblical prophets’ warnings against the corruption of the rich and powerful, the oppression of the poor and the self-centered pursuit of short-sighted pleasures, understanding how relevant such warnings are to the ecological devastation wrought by hypercapitalism. Sabbath properly practiced offers a weekly interruption of the suicidal econometric fantasy of infinite growth, a weekly divestment from fossil fuels, a weekly investment in local community.
These are but a few suggestions of where we might start to explore a new form of Shabbat observance – and I’m excited by the prospect of discovering more. At the same time, I realize that these approaches have inherent challenges. When we talk about the World to Come in this manner, we’re essentially talking about structural change – and I have no illusions that personal disciplines alone will themselves effect the wholesale changes we seek.
At the same time, however, I strongly believe that Shabbat has the genuine potential to motivate us to keep the struggle going – to inspire us to continue building the movement for the long haul. As I like to put it, when Shabbat arrives every Friday evening, these rituals invite us to cease the struggle and experience together the world we are ultimately struggling for. Shabbat can renew and replenish us so that ideally, when it ends on Saturday evening, we are that much more inspired to go out and make that world a reality.
I’m also aware that not everyone will have the ability to observe Shabbat in the ways that I have outlined here. I know full well that there are those who cannot afford to take every Saturday off to resist the commodification of their labor. There are those who do not have the luxury of weekends, who must work sometimes multiple jobs just to get by. And I also know how challenging it is in the digital age to leave work at work, in an era where our work mail follows us electronically 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But to my mind, this reality drives home the sacred importance of Shabbat all the more. Shabbat reminds us that we must continue to struggle for jobs that pay livable wages, for saner working hours, for the ability to live lives of purpose, for the right to spend our time in more meaningful and fulfilling ways.
I like to think of Tzedek Chicago as a spiritual laboratory where we can explore new ways of celebrating Shabbat as a revolution, where we can, on a regular basis, live in the world we know is possible. Those of you who have come to our Friday evening online services and candle lightings will know what I’m talking about. I’m fairly sure that not a Shabbat goes by when we don’t mention the World to Come – and try to make it real for one another. And I’m sure we’re not the only ones.
Those of you who join us for Shabbat services also know that I like to write contemporary Shabbat liturgy that evoke the spiritual reframing that I’ve described to you tonight. I’d like to end with one of them: a prayer for Havdalah – the service that ends Shabbat on Saturday evening. I offer it in honor of this Yom Kippur, the day in which we vision of the world that might yet be – and vow to do what we must to make it a reality:
Savor this eternal moment
and hold it close,
before you leave the world to come
and re-enter the world as it is,
before your sweet dream
reverts back to hard truth.
For this much we know:
long after the day is done
the melody of this song will
reverberate through our souls,
driving us forward until the day
that liberation is finally won.
One day very soon,
the song will lead us
to a dream fulfilled, to a place
where light and gladness,
joy and wonder, justice and salvation
flow without cease.
But for now we’ll prepare ourselves
for the work ahead –
let’s light the fire, raise the cup
and breathe in the sweetness
of this moment.
With strength renewed
and spirit re-inspired it’s time
to rejoin the struggle.
Blessed is the One who separates
between inspiration and fulfillment,
exile and return,
struggle and liberation,
hard work and sweet victory,
between the world we know
and the world we know is possible.