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Drash Yitro 5766 - Resting Away in Shabbosville?







This week, moving towards Sinai, Moses’ father in law Yitro catches up with the Israelites bringing Moses’ sons and wife with him. Yitro explains the concepts of delegation and bureaucracy, and then the people get ready for the Ten Commandments, which take up the last part of this portion. 

Every time at this time of the year I seem to write the same Drash, and pick out the same commandment to talk about. This year is no different.  We read in the text concerning Moses personally hearing every case of the people as a judge:

17. And Moses’ father-in-law said to him, the thing that you do is not good. 18. You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone.

I understand the problem all too personally. I did once follow Yitro’s advice, and delegated much of what I do professionally to others. But, in lean times I made hard but necessary budget cuts and that meant much of this help was cut too. This brought me back to Moses’ dilemma of doing everything by myself. Many of us feel the same way, overworked and exhausted as the things continue to pile up upon us. 

I, course have no one to blame but myself, much of what I got myself into outside of work is voluntary.  Writing this Drash, grad school, and synagogue stuff is all voluntary, but it takes time and energy, energy that no number of venti coffees with extra shots in my favorite mobile offices can provide.  It leads to mistakes I cannot afford, exhaustion and poor health. But someone recently mentioned something else it does too: it means I do not enjoy the world around me. I do things but don’t actually appreciate doing them.  Thinking about that this morning I realized that as much as people complain about the bitter taste of this coffee in front of me, I never noticed because I only drink it, I never really taste it. I’m alive but not really appreciating living.  

As Yitro points out, it is not only ourselves who are affected, but those we interact with, who also bear the burden of our exhaustion, in the irritability and loss of efficiency. I notice that inefficiency even as I wrote this, barely able to cement one thought to another. Yet while Yitro's solution of delegation is one that God will endorse wholeheartedly in the Book of Numbers, there is another solution that God comes up with, probably one of the most revolutionary concepts in all civilization, and make it one of the first of the Ten Commandments.

8. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; 10. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; 11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy. 

As the Jewish philosopher and apologist Philo of Alexandria explained to incredulous Romans, Shabbat is a day of rest in order to make the other days more efficient. Yet I find that efficiency hard to come by. For me, and I know for others, Shabbat and Saturday is no longer a day of rest but the day that we get no new responsibilities or interruptions, so we end up working to catch up with everything we didn’t do during the week.  Of course that wasn’t the idea of the commandment, yet in a world strongly pushing us to perform, it’s very seductive to use the day of rest as a catch up day.

Interestingly, as I have more recently added Saturday morning services to my observance, I find myself even more stressed out and with bigger piles of incomplete stuff. For many years I used the early morning hours of Shabbat to do Hebrew translation, but now don’t have that time slot, and I’m having a very hard time squeezing it into my schedule. As I now am Taking Hebrew class for credit, the translations are now real work and are no longer recreation, adding to my stress.  

I’ve written in the past of what I envision Shabbat as - some Jewish version of a Jimmy Buffet song, I’m resting away in Shabbosville. Its one particular harbor on a Tropical Island in time where I sit back, relax and enjoy the sights, tastes, sounds and smells of this world, to enjoy time with friends and family, and to enjoy a one-day vacation from everything else. Of course for each person that might have a different view of what that vacation looks like, but the idea is the same: to stop what we do for the other six days of week, and like God did, refresh our soul-life. I agree with the view Abraham Joshua Heshchel wrote in The Sabbath (pg.8):

   Unlike the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath is not dedicated exclusively to spiritual goals. It is a day of the soul as well as the body; comfort and pleasure are an integral part of the Sabbath observance...To observe is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again the majesty of holiness in time "a day of rest a day of freedom" a day which is like "a lord and king of all other days" a lord and king in the commonwealth of time.
But rest and freedom seems elusive. The temptations are too great to work, as the piles, both literally and figuratively get higher around us. Yet, it may be like Philo says, that the Sabbath is the day of refreshing, and if we get a good day of refreshing then the other six work so much better. Given the number of silly mistakes and forgetfulness I’ve had lately, I’m sure stressing for seven days is the reason, and Shabbat is the solution. Of course things can get out of hand if I get work done seven days a week: there is the real possibility of true heath problems. Transgression of Shabbat does carry the death penalty, but it is a Caret penalty, one meted out by God. I have always belied that caret means we run the risk of heart attack and other stress related illnesses to a greater degree if we don’t observe the Sabbath. If we don’t stop and rest, we die an early death. 

So I’m seriously looking towards making a few changes in my life, to more observe Shabbat than I have. It means some disappointments in my life, Grad school graduation is probably delayed by a year or so, but so it will be. And with that burden still on my back for a longer time my social life will continue to suffer, but so it will be. More important is this commandment from The Torah, uttered on Sinai. Hillel once said that our body is the receptacle our nefesh, the soul given to us by God, and the holy part of us. We must treat our bodies as well as the custodians of Roman temples treat the idols inside, says Hillel, even more so: our bodies really are the gifts from God.

With that, however hard it is to just stop, may you have a wonderful restful Shabbos. 


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