If you restrain your foot…

Alex Braver
February 13, 2012
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I began to become more observant of Shabbat when I came to New York, about a year and a half ago, and decided one weekend to really take on the challenge of avoiding commerce, and electronics, the stuff in my life that I usually would use to pass the time.  I was new to the city and did not yet have the network of friends and supportive community for which I am grateful now—and so, I found the task incredibly difficult.  I would get home from synagogue, or from lunch, and then have no idea what to do to occupy the next 4 or 5 hours or so of the afternoon.  I could only read, nap, or take a walk for so long, and I found the pull back towards stuff to be almost irresistible.

Yet I’ve learned that I, like many of us modern Jews, am addicted to stuff, to the things in life that distract me from forming real connections and from confronting my own self, from being forced to sit without constant entertainment.  I learned to make friends in the Jewish community, found myself getting invited to more Shabbat meals that lasted longer and longer, as we lingered over good food and wine for hours at a time, so that by the time the meal ended Shabbat was almost over, usually too quickly!

I am not a luddite, or anti-consumerist—I love technology and I love buying things.  But for me, taking Shabbat seriously as a spiritual practice of letting go of the stuff in my life has been a transformative experience, although one with which I still struggle.

I am reminded of the verses from Isaiah that many read before reciting Kiddush on Shabbat afternoon:

(13) If you restrain your foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing your business on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters;

(14) Then shall you delight yourself in the LORD…

יג אִם-תָּשִׁיב מִשַּׁבָּת רַגְלֶךָ, עֲשׂוֹת חֲפָצֶךָ בְּיוֹם קָדְשִׁי; וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג, לִקְדוֹשׁ יְהוָה מְכֻבָּד, וְכִבַּדְתּוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכֶיךָ, מִמְּצוֹא חֶפְצְךָ וְדַבֵּר דָּבָר.
יד אָז, תִּתְעַנַּג עַל-יְהוָה …

 

There is a tension in these verses between pursuing “your own business” and  “doing your own ways” on the one hand, and “delighting yourself in God” on the other.  Isaiah’s assertion is that true, meaningful, and sustainable happiness does not come from blindly following our daily routines, from consuming the stuff that we think we want or need right now, from focusing on the short-term happiness of consumerism.  True delight comes from realizing that we are not enslaved to pursuing our own business, or enslaved to our feet. By restricting our actions occasionally, we gain a higher freedom and a greater joy.

I’m beginning to learn to restrain my foot from going of on its own, automated way, following its daily patterns of consumption and materialism that a part of my brain still thinks will make me deeply and existentially happy.  This is a lesson I still struggle to appreciate, and it is one that is more important now than ever.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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