Serenity Lost

by Harold M. Schulweis

In my youth the Sabbath was a wet blanket, a puritanical litany of prohibited joys, a series of proscriptions and negations that inhibited productivity, creativity, and fun. The Sabbath was the day of "no" -- no, you cannot play ball, listen to the radio, ride your bike. "You shall not do any manner of work." Why, I wondered, is the Torah so insistent about forbidding labor? I could understand prohibitions against immoral behavior, but who needs a law against working?

Endless work is a curse. After Adam transgressed, God punished him: "In toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of your life. In the sweat of thy brow, in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till you return to the ground.

"Why, then, are so many of us willingly embracing the curse of all-consuming work? Why do we want to toil not six days but all seven? Because we are afraid not to work. We fear the Sabbath as slaves fear freedom. If I have free time, with what shall I fill it? With whom shall I spend it? How can I live without schedule, without deadlines, without orders? We complain, of course, of insufficient time for family and friends, but left with twenty-four hours of unstructured time, we become ill at ease. We are frightened of boredom, which the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called "the root of all evil." We know how children go crazy when they are bored; it goes double for adults.

Therapists are familiar with this odd phobia: the fear of vacations, of relaxation, of retirement, of leisure. Even the terms themselves are filled with negation. The root of vacation is "vacate," to cause to be empty or unoccupied. Relaxation is defined as "an absence or reduction of muscle retention." Retirement comes from the French "retirer," which means to withdraw. The dread of having a single day away from the office produces in many people what psychologists Ferenzi and Karl Abraham call "Sunday neurosis." Some of us grow depressed and even ill when the stock market prices stop marching across the screen.

The seduction of work has drained us of our poetry, romance, and intimacy. And, if one follows the psychological literature, it has brought tens of thousands of people to a state of anhedonia, an inability to achieve joy in intimacy.

Sigmund Freud called work and love "the parents of human civilization." But at the dawn of the 21st century, work -- not love -- is our chief joy. In The Overworked American, economist Judith Schor informs us that, in the last two decades, the average worker has added on an extra 164 hours -- an entire month -- to the work year! Vacations have shortened by fourteen percent, and in white households parental time available to children has fallen ten hours per week. In his bestseller, The Time Bind, Arlie Russell Hochschild contends there is a profound reversal in our social psyche: both men and women favor the workplace over home.

Why? Because the workplace is more interesting and more fun than the home. The office is an escape from unwashed dishes, unresolved quarrels, testy tots, and unresponsive mates. Women report that the rewards of caring and feeding the family cannot compare to the satisfaction, recognition, and respect they receive at the office. The historian Kay Hamod writes, "I love scholarly work because you force a manuscript into shape. It's not like sitting alone for nine months waiting for something to happen to you."

An important revolutionary reversal is taking place in our culture. Yesterday we spoofed the office, the factory, speed, scheduling. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times offered a satiric, sharp insight into the technological, industrial world of the late 1930s. Workers no longer had to stop for lunch; they were fed by a revolving plate with an automatic food pusher, and an automatic soup plate arrived with a compressed air blower so the workers didn't even have to blow on the soup.

A different scenario suggests itself for our modern times. If Chaplin's feeding machine hurried the worker, the modern parent hurries the child. The culture of the workplace has taken over that of the home. In a recent advertisement for a popular oatmeal, a working mother feeds her tot in just under ninety seconds. "Sherri Greenberg" holds four-and-a-half-year-old Nicky in her arms and declares: "Nicky is a very picky eater. With instant Quaker oatmeal, I can give him a terrific hot breakfast in just ninety seconds, and I don't have to spend any time coaxing him to eat it." The ad concludes, "Instant Quaker oatmeal for moms who have a lot of love but not a lot of time." Some technological advances take a bit longer: "two-minute rice," "five-minute chicken casserole," and "seven-minute Chinese feasts."

Hallmark has just the cards for busy parents. One is to be placed on the child's bed: "Sorry I can't be there to tuck you in." Another is to be put on the breakfast table: "Sorry I can't say good morning." Surely, work is not the culprit. Judaism does not oppose work. The six days do not stand in opposition to the seventh day. It is all within the same commandment: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord." [Exodus 20:9-10] Judaism pleads that we attain some degree of independence from the store, from the factory, from the office, from the culture of commerce, from the adulation of commodities.

The Sabbath challenges us to break our addiction to work. Shabbat is a cry for sanity, for freedom from the omnivorous monster that eats at our soul and robs us of our family, our friends, and the gentleness in us.

On Yom Kippur the Haftorah from the Prophet Isaiah 58 concludes: "If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your business on My holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and call the holy day honorable, if you honor it and go not to your own ways nor look to your own affairs nor pursue your business nor speak thereof, then shalt thou delight yourself in the Lord and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob." For the Sabbath to be a delight, it must go beyond lighting candles, reciting kiddush, and blessing the challah. If the table talk is filled with the making of "deals" or of a "killing" in the market, the challah turns hard and dry. If the table talk is acerbic, sarcastic, and full of gossip, or speaks to the children only of their progress in school and not of their hopes and dreams, the kiddush wine turns sour. If there is shouting at the Sabbath table, the candles are extinguished.

Judaism asks for equilibrium. The Sabbath is a declaration of a truce, an armistice for the sake of our liberation.

We are lopsided, out of kilter. We need one day out of seven to restore our sanity.

One day out of seven let us erect a barrier to keep out the culture of business, its toughness, its hardness, its obsessiveness, its competition.

One day out of seven let us close our pocketbooks.

One day out of seven let us liberate "In God we trust" from the dollar bill and put it into our lives.

One day in seven let us halt the motor.

One day in seven let us not purchase what we covet.

One day out of seven let us disconnect the TV, fax, and computer; instead, let us take our time, talking and listening to those whom we love.

One day out of seven let us create the balance indispensable for our sanity, our health, and the solidity of our family lives.

On Shabbat we can begin to take back control of our lives. The Sabbath is our time; the home is our place.

Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA and author of For Those Who Can't Believe (HarperCollins).

Back to Spring 1998

Back to UAHC home page

Copyright © 1998, Union of American Hebrew Congregations