Judaism - Torah

Shabbat as a Strike

A number of years ago on Facebook, a friend shared a post that… really, really bothered me.

It wasn’t political or hostile or antagonistic at all. It simply said:

“I think that the entire world would become better if more people lit shabbas candles every week.”

It struck me as the kind of post from someone who has that kind of theology where if you just follow the rules perfectly, and just pray hard enough, then everything will be okay.

Now – I’m a pretty spiritual person, and I believe that there’s deep meaning and relevance to be found in mitzvot– in the entire system of Jewish ritual and commandments. And I happen to love lighting candles to bring in shabbat.

But believing that – “poof!” if only you lit shabbas candles, then perhaps magically the world would get better… it honestly felt to me as the wrong kind of Jewish practice: superstitious, and not well-adapted for the world in which we live.

I admit that I came at this Facebook post with a lot of judgment.

And I want to admit now that I was wrong.

I don’t even remember who posted that on Facebook years ago, but if I could remember, I would apologize to their face.

Since I can’t, I offer my apology here. Here’s why I think I was wrong:

I was thinking about the power of today’s global youth climate strike.

2,500 events in over 150 countries. Afghanistan. Bangladesh. Nigeria. Pakistan, where protestors carried signs saying: “I like my fries hot, not my planet.” Poland, China, and here in DC, where one banner read: “Strike today, save tomorrow.”

We’ve seen marches and protests before, but something felt different to me about this one.

The power of tens of hundreds of thousands of people around the world not simply marching for a cause, but striking– actively ceasing and bringing to a halt schooling and work – it changes how we see something. It changes our awareness.

To say: I’m striking. I’m striking in support of something I believe in that is bigger than myself. And I’m going to stop doing what I ordinarily do – at great inconvenience. Schools were disrupted and workplaces stagnated.

That’s the point of a strike: not just to inconvenience others, but to change awareness and bring about fundamental change through a stoppage.

And here’s where my old judgment of that shabbas candle idea came roaring back to me.

Lighting shabbas candles is a kind of protest.

Yes, Jewish tradition understands it as a mitzvah– as a commandment.
But it’s more than that.

It’s quite literally about changing our awareness – lighting a beacon in front of our eyes as a sign of something greater.

What’s it a sign of?

Ot hi l’olam – it is an eternal sign

Ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai et hashamayim v’et Haaretz – that in six days, God created the entire cosmos – the heavens and the earth.

This is what Shabbat is, and has always been: a moment of protest directed to remind us: zeicher l’maaseh bereishit– to remind us of the act of creation.

Shabbat is a protest against mindlessness and inconsideration and forgetting that we are entirely indebted to a vast web that supports us and makes our very existence possible. Call that God or mother earth or the planet’s ecosystem…

Judaism emphatically declares: Once a week, you have to be aware of your place in the universe.

And boy is that an idea in need of a protest. The forces of everyday life mean that for most, it almost ha sto be protested.

“If Shabbat is to have significance,” says Rabbi Gunther Plaut, “it must confront one of modern civilization’s greatest curses: its internal and external unrest. This unrest arises from the twin facts that the life we lead is frequently without goals and that we are involved in competition without end.

Shabbat is potentially an enormous relief from and protest against the basic causes of unrest. Once a week it provides us with an opportunity to address ourselves to the meaning of human existence rather than the struggle for survival; to persons rather than things; to Creation and our part in it.

[it is] a protest against all forms of competition even when they come in attractive packages marked ‘self-advancement’ or ‘self-improvement…’”

But we have to be careful: Shabbas is not just a time for rest and relief. It’s a different kind of pause.

Though we often translate the word shabbas into English as “rest,” that’s not quite sufficient. It doesn’t quite grasp the philosophical nuance of the day. What is meant by the word shabbas is not so much rest, but ceasing from work it’s an active process, not just the passive abstaining from work.

Ideally, in the mind of Rabbi Heschel, Shabbat is “not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. [Shabbat] is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Shabbat.”

In Israel, the modern Hebrew word for a labour strike – sh’vita – comes from the same word as shabbat, and has the exact same implication: an active cessation from productive activity.

And this is why I think that my old Facebook friend was right. That lighting shabbas candles each week can make the world better. Not because they necessarily bring about any magical change, but because they are an act of spiritual protest.

Shabbat is a strike. And striking the match to light shabbas candles is a strike. A strike against an idea that says: you have to dominate the world. A strike against those who say that we are not bound up in each other and have ultimate responsibility to the source of our creation. It is a strike against the world of endless pursuits, and resource consumption, and toxic pollution; a strike against putting things out into the world, rather than letting the world put things into us.

Shabbat is the active cessation outof the world of creation, as Heschel puts it, and into the creation of the world.

“We must once again understand that doing nothing, being silent and open to the world, letting things happen inside, can be as important as, and sometimes more important than what we commonly call useful.” (Plaut)

We can take one day out of seven – 14% of our lives – to stop, and reflect on our responsibilities to the creation of the world. And for what it’s worth – that would make climate activists pretty happy, to potentially reduce our energy use and consumption by 14%.

But it’s more than just practical. Like any strike or protest, we’re not just trying to effect practical change, we’re trying to engineer a paradigm shift. To say: “hold on, we can’t keep going this way. We’re forgetting how things are supposed to be. We need to stop and reorient ourselves. Zecher l’maaseh bereshit. Remember the creation of the world.

And so maybe; just maybe… the entire world wouldbecome better if more people lit shabbas candles every week. If we all spent 14% of our lives remembering the source of existence. If we went on strike in service of something much muchgreater than each of us.

It’s shabbas. Let’s have the chutzpah – the courage – to go on strike.

1 thought on “Shabbat as a Strike”

  1. Notwithstanding clear instruction to not light fire and furnaces for man’s interests: I consider the following copy and our salvation: As I’ve often remarked, Shabbat is a wonderful time to rest. It’s a chance to break from the usual grind of work and life to take a moment and reflect. Yet, this Shabbat I’m thinking of another kind of “break” that also comes from the root of the word Shabbat (Sh-b/v-t) meaning “to rest;” yhat word is Sh’vitah which means “strike.” In particular, sh’vitah refers to the actions of a group of people (usually workers) to STOP what they’re doing in order to achieve some kind of goal (i.e. better wages, better working conditions, etc.). What is remarkable about the term sh’vitah (especially as it relates to Shabbat) is that by its very root it indicates that when someone (or some group) “strikes” the result of their defiance (like protests, making demands, undertaking negotiations) is not an action but really an in-action. In other words, for whatever reason they decide to cease from acting in the usual manner (i.e. inaction) and by virtue of that inaction, they end up acting in wholly different ways.

    This is why Shabbat is so unique and sometimes so difficult to truly observe. In order to observeShabbat, one must STRIKE from the actions of the week — from the pressures of work and the rest of life — and undertake a whole different way of being. It’s the kind of being that Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to as a “day of soul,” a day in which we cease our attention of the outer world and turn our attention to our inner world.

    Shabbat Shalom,

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