A Radical Reclamation of the Right to Rest

Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur 5783 / October 4, 2022

Since the start of the pandemic, like many people, I have spent a lot more time at home. Pandemic. One of the things that I have found joy in is the opportunity this affords for fashion experimentation. Since I know that no one is going to see me, I feel free to try out different styles of clothing, color combinations, or make-up looks that never have to leave my house. 

In the course of these explorations, I turned to the internet for some inspiration, where I discovered a whole world of blogs, social media influencers, and online communities dedicated to fashion and personal style.

And that was where I made a horrifying discovery: all of the trends that I wore as a teenager are back with a vengeance. Apparently, “the kids” are calling this the Y2K aesthetic. 

Perhaps you can relate to this experience. It comes for us at all some point, and so I too have reached the stage of recoiling in horror as younger people bring back some of the worst ideas of an earlier era. Pants you can’t sit down in. Center parts with bleached blonde streaks. Shiny neon and metallic synthetic fabrics. Frosted lipgloss. Denim on denim aka the Canadian Tuxedo. 

As I and my fellow elder millennials have cautioned: please don’t do this. We made these mistakes so you don’t have to. 

On the other hand, I understand it. These trends are part of what some people are referring to as dopamine dressing – the idea that dressing in a way that makes us happy can give us a mood boost at a time when there is so much happening in the world to drag us down. 

I may not be ready to sport a hot pink bedazzled tracksuit, but I do find that choosing to wear a color I love, or a piece of jewelry that has meaning for me can give me that  little extra joy to get through my day. 

After the past couple of years, I think we could all use a little more joy. 

And what better time to talk about joy than Yom Kippur, am I right? 

I understand – This statement is sort of counter to our instincts to think of Yom Kippur as a day of joy. 

The Jewish tradition considers Yom Kippur to be the holiest day of the year, but it is also a joyful one. The Mishnah tells us that on both the 15th of the month of Av and on Yom Kippur, the unmarried women of Jerusalem would dress in white and go out to dance and sing in the vineyards outside the city. There is also the idea that in Olam HaBa – the world to come, all of the other festivals will no longer be needed, but that we will continue to celebrate only two – Purim and Yom Kippur – although instead of a fast, it will be a celebratory feast. 

When we begin to look for them, we notice seeds of joy sprinkled throughout our services for the holiday. We began this evening with a line from the psalms – Or zarua latzadik, ul’yishrei lev simcha – Light is sown for the righteousness, and joy for the upright of heart. Tomorrow, we recount the radiance of the high priest emerging from the Holy of Holies to be welcomed with celebration by the entire community. And at the closing of the day, we include a prayer that repeats the refrain: Lech b’simchah echol lachmecha ushteh b’lev tov Yeinecha. – Go forth joyfully, eat your meal and drink your wine with a full heart. 

What is it that makes this day so joyful? We can imagine the joy that comes with unburdening ourselves, with starting a new year with a clean slate. Maybe more mundanely, we just feel really happy to eat at the end of a full day of fasting!

Another way of looking at Yom Kippur might be this – Yom Kippur is referred to in the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton – the Shabbat of Shabbats. That suggests that there is something about this day that fully encompasses the spirit of Shabbat, perhaps even more so than Shabbat itself. 

Shabbat is about rest, and about the joy that emerges in the space we carve out. The prayers and songs for Shabbat celebrate oneg – pleasure, or delight, rejoicing on the day, enjoying delicious foods and wine, freedom from labor. Our tradition teaches us that in the space that is created when we allow ourselves to rest, we can find the time and space to experience joy. It is said that Shabbat offers us a taste of olam haba – the world to come, a fully redeemed world. 

If this is true of Shabbat, then it must also be true of Yom Kippur – Shabbat Shabbaton – too. 

In their essence, these sacred days are a step outside of time, to experience the world as if it is already whole.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to Shabbat as a “palace in time.” The wisdom that Shabbat and Yom Kippur offer us is that we need a pause in order to really appreciate and fully experience the things we create, and perhaps more than that, to really tap into who we are. By stepping through this portal into a slower, more easeful pace, we create a vessel to hold our joy. 

After decades of being seen as outdated, the Sabbath or Shabbat idea is having a moment. We live in an attention economy, with new technology and media arising to demand our attention. It affects our work lives, too. Instead of fulfilling the prediction of early 20th century economists that our workdays would get shorter, and we would enjoy more leisure time, technology is often a tool to extract even more productivity. With email and a smartphone, your employer can now reach you at all times.

I teach introduction to Judaism classes for people who are exploring Judaism and their partners. I have noticed a distinct shift over the last couple of years in the way that students in my classes relate to the idea of disconnecting on Shabbat. It used to feel like a bit of a hard sell to extol the value of unplugging for any amount of time. And I understand that – technology has given us more ways to connect with family and friends, even when we are not in the same place. At the end of a long week, sitting down to binge watch your favorite show on Netflix sounds like a pretty good way to relax. 

But now, I see a hunger in my students’ eyes, sometimes bordering on desperation. Many of them, young professionals in their 20s, talk about how much they struggle with the expectation that they are always available to their employers – whether after hours, or over the weekend. 

Maybe it was the pandemic and Zoom requiring many people to spend their entire workday in front of a screen that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But what I see now is an almost unbridled enthusiasm for the idea of taking a digital Sabbath, a sense of relief at being told it is not only ok, it is spiritually meaningful to take a break, even if just for a few hours.

I know that my students aren’t the only ones who feel this way.  And, this isn’t the first time in history when people have found themselves at odds with expectations for endless labor without reprieve. 

The creation of the Sabbath – a time once a week, that is not connected to any natural phenomena that help us mark time – to relax, take a break, step back and appreciate our work is one of the unique contributions of Judaism to world culture. This idea was also quite out of step with the prevailing cultures of the ancient world. The Greeks and Romans particularly saw this as laziness. The idea that you would take even one day off a week from producing was unfathomable to them. (Mind you, these were cultures that relied on the forced labor of people in lower classes and slaves captured in war.)

While the particular manifestations have shifted over time, to this day, most of western European-influenced society is living with the legacy of Rome. This is a culture that says – time not spent producing is time wasted. You are only worth what you produce. A culture that says if you are disabled you are worth less than someone who is able bodied. That says when you grow old, as we inevitably do, and are no longer producing value, you are a burden. 

In his book “Laziness Does Not Exist,” Dr. Devon Price calls this the Laziness Lie. The Laziness Lie has 3 main tenets:

  1. Your worth is your productivity.
  2. You cannot trust your own feelings and limits.
  3. There is always more you could be doing. 

When stated so bluntly, we recognize how destructive this way of thinking actually is. And yet, it is an operating principle of the society that we live in, one that we have been taught and that we may have internalized in a way that makes it difficult to let go of. I have struggled with this immensely- the feeling that I’m not doing enough, that there could always be more, that I’m letting people down, that I just need to discover the genius lifehack that will let me circumvent the laws of nature. 

We may have an intuition that we can only experience real joy when we have time to rest – to appreciate what we have created, to recharge and renew ourselves, to be reenergized for our creative periods. Recent research has found that indeed, having downtime, when we are not actively thinking about how to solve a problem, is actually essential to our creativity. We need to give ourselves a break. When we do, the time we spend at work or in our creative endeavors is often more fruitful. 

But the real reason to rest is not to squeeze out as much productivity as we can. The real reason is that we need it to fully experience and enjoy our lives. If we don’t slow down we deprive ourselves of all the things that make life beautiful – time with the people we love the most, exploring our passions, making music and art, laughter and play, taking in this wide world we’ve been gifted with.  Our lives are like a piece of music. You can play all the notes, but the real artistry comes in the pauses between the notes. 

The Shabbat ethos is the radical reclamation of the right to rest. It is a powerful antidote to the medicine we’ve been swallowing all our lives. It teaches us – you matter because you are.

The psalms encourage us: Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – Serve God with joy. Service to the Source of Life comes through joy. 

This Yom Kippur, this Shabbat Shabbaton, let’s find the space between the notes together. Let’s savor this taste of Olam Haba, and may we bring the spaciousness and joy of the world to come into the year ahead.