Monday, October 7, 2013

The Gift of Rest, by Joe Lieberman

The subtitle of this interesting little book by former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is, "rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath."   Senator Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew but he wrote this book to appeal to Christians as well.  The book jacket even boasts blurbs from folks like the Catholic Church's Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, who notes, "As Pope John Paul II taught: we cannot work with God all week, if we do not rest with God on His Sabbath! Senator Lieberman’s reflections help each of us to remember just how to rest in God’s presence on His day.”

And from perhaps the opposite end of Christianity in Richard Land, who runs the Southern Evangelical Seminary, who wrote, "The Gift of Rest has certainly convicted this too-busy Baptist to mend his ways and once again embrace a weekly ‘day of rest.’”

I start by pointing out this broad based appeal because it is so unusual, especially in times of fractious political behavior, to see agreement from folks, particularly those whose religious beliefs are so different - yet rooted in the Bible's first five books.

The direction to honor a sabbath day comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 20, lines seven through ten:
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."
What Senator Lieberman does, as do others of varied religious doctrine who also follow this directive, is to take the words extremely literally.  He won't turn lights on or off, for example (but he might leave a light on prior to the Sabbath); he won't drive in a car (or be driven); no television, radio, computers or phone calls.    And while the Senator does this out of his sense of obligation to follow all the commandments his religious beliefs identify (613 of them), this particular one is clearly identifiable in what most folks call the Ten Commandments, but which is perhaps more correctly referred to as the Ten Directives, or Aseret ha-D'varim, in the Jewish belief. 1

The punch line is that Senator Lieberman doesn't view this requirement as a take-away; rather he views it as a wonderful gift.  One aspect of the gift is that he is forced to spend time with his family, friends and community without the distractions of work, television, internet, or phone calls.  He finds this a particularly powerful weekly practice as it not only refreshes his relationships but also his energy and attitude towards the work week.   He also says it puts the work week in perspective, remembering that the same Genesis line enjoins us to labor for six days out of seven, so the commandment to work is as strong as the commandment to rest.   For non-Jewish readers, the Senator suggests making a Sunday sabbath a day of rest at this level of engagement (with others) and disengagement (from technology and worldly pursuits).

The rest of the book is a tour of a typical Sabbath for the Senator, which runs from slightly before dusk on Friday afternoon until one can see stars in the sky on Saturday evening. I found this book to be both interesting and thought provoking, well written and quick moving.  I recommend it.

The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath

1The concept is that there are 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible.2  If there are 613 requirements, then it is inconsistent to think of 10 of them as commandments; worse, it might lead one to imagine that the remaining 603 commandments are less important.  Which they aren't, at least not to religious Jews.   This is rather confusing, because Exodus 38, lines 27-28 says: "The Lord said to Moses: 'Inscribe these words for yourself, for according to these words I have formed a covenant with you and with Israel'... He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments."  The Orthodox reasoning seems to be that if you take all of the Torah (first five books of the Bible) as the word of God, then where it says in that text to do (or not do) something, it must be a commandment from God, and that must be followed just as devoutly as a commandment captured on Moses' tablets.   For example, the commandment to not embarrass another person comes from Leviticus 17, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart."  This is no doubt why you never see Jews going door to door for converts; 613 rules make for a tough sell.3

2 Of those 613 commandments, 248 of them are positive (do this) and 365 are negative (don't do that).  Since nothing is easy in religion, there is of course no definitive list of the 613 in the bible; you have to look around.  The work was done for believers by a physician named Mosheh ben Malmon, but more typically called Moses Maimonides, compiled the Mishneh Torah (repetition of the Torah) as a code of religious law, while in Egypt in the late 1100s.

3Just as an aside, another reason Jews don't bother acting like young LDS members on a mission to convert is that in Jewish belief, non-Jews need only adhere to the seven Noahic commandments in order to find their place in Heaven.  They come from Genesis Chapter 9 and are believed to be binding on all people (since all are descended from Noah and his family, post flood).  (But the 613 commandments are binding only on the descendants of those at Sinai - the Jews.)  Hard sell indeed: you can go to heaven following seven rules if you don't join, or join and be bound to 613 rules.  Okay, I know you're curious; these rules are:  1) establish courts of justice; 2) not blaspheme; 3) not commit idolatry; 4) not commit incest or adultery; 5) not commit bloodshed; 6) not commit robbery; 7) not eat flesh cut from a living animal.

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