This past Shabbat I participated in Vancouver’s first “Occupy Shabbat.” The thirty of us crammed into Occupy Vancouver’s meditation tent weren’t the only ones celebrating this way. In cities across North America, Jews of all types are joining together to Occupy Shabbat in conjunction with the Occupy Together movement now galvanizing the continent. What does it mean to celebrate this weekly holy day in solidarity with and surrounded by activists, artists, and people calling for a better tomorrow? What can we learn from this day about social and environmental change? How can Shabbat be a model for us and the world?
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Shabbat is being associated with social justice. Shabbat is the radical concept that all people, regardless of their social and financial status deserve a day of rest. On Shabbat we can imagine a world in which all people experience freedom from work of all kinds. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his slim classic The Sabbath said it best:
“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence from external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that hold out a greater hope for humanity’s progress than the Sabbath?”
Shabbat is described two ways in the Torah; in remembrance of the works of Creation and because we were once slaves and are now free. As such we do no ‘work’ on this day. But what does work really mean? According to Eric Fromm, an early 20th century Jewish social scientist, “’Work’ is any interference by man, be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world. ‘Rest’ is a state of peace between man and nature.” (The Forgotten Language) Shabbat reminds us of our place in the order of world. We are free beings with free will and great ability, but we are also natural and social beings subject to the limitations of the natural world, our societies and our morality.
Shabbat’s place as a reminder of past oppression also serves to promote a just society. While most Jews are no longer slaves, slavery persists in many incarnations in many parts of the world. Individuals subject to wage slavery produce the very products we use to make our lives less laborious, including the computer I am using to type this blog. Closer to home, more and more families work longer hours for less pay while watching their savings and wealth evaporate. Families are locked into underwater homes, minimum wage jobs, and so much economic oppression, it’s hard to consider our society truly free. Every seven days, Shabbat gives us a taste of true freedom. But our experience of this freedom should be tempered by the knowledge that not all people are free to sample the joys of rest. Shabbat is a reminder of our moral and religious obligation to demand a society where everyone can afford to feed their family AND take time off to feed their soul.
Beginning in the bible, the values of Shabbat are extended beyond just the seven day cycle, to include a seven and forty nine year cycle for land. Shmita (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) are years in which both people and land are required to ‘rest’ and are treated as equal regardless of wealth or status. In fact, the values of Shabbat and social equality extend so far in the bible that in the Jubilee year, land is redistributed to ensure no individual, family or clan can accumulate too much wealth at the expense of others.
The values of Shabbat can be applied and extended in other, modern ways as well.
“Sabbath, sabbatical and jubilee are all eruptions of wildness into the humdrum of the technical and economic order. Earth, plants, animals – even humans – are free to do as they will… The analogy, too, can be turned on its head. If the Sabbath is a wilderness in time, then wilderness is a Sabbath in space.” Evan Eisenberg, the Ecology of Eden.
Shabbat, or ‘the weekend’, has already come to dominate Western society. Sabbath, sabbatical and even T.G.I.F (Thank G!d it’s Friday) are commonly used in the English lexicon. As such we can build off this knowledge and understanding of the basic meaning of Shabbat to explore what rest, peace, celebration and appreciation of people and the planet can add to our society in terms of building a just society for all.
If every person in America stopped watching TV, using a computer and driving a car for just one day a week, we would save more than 500 billion pounds (250 million tons) of CO2 from entering the atmosphere each year, going a long way towards mitigating the social and environmental implications of climate change. What if we went even further? What if every week, every corporation, every small business, every factory, every store, took one day off a week, cutting consumption of electricity and materials by more than 14% with one change? Shabbat could turn the tide on Climate Change, the most potentially disastrous global social and environmental concern.
Occupy Shabbat! Spend time occupying the values of this holy day. Eat, learn and pray in the streets. Spend time as equals with other members of our communities regardless of their background. Share food and celebrate the bounty of Creation. Learn, pray and even protest about social and political change, and celebrate a world we can believe in. Simply through the act of occupying the values of this day, we can help change the world.
“Sabbath in our time! To cease for a whole day from all business, from all work, in the frenzied hurry-scurry of our time! To close the exchanges, the workshops, and factories, to stop all railway services – great heavens! How would it be possible? The life of the world would stop beating and the world perish! The world perish? On the contrary, – it would be saved!” Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Judaism Eternal II:30 (19th C)