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Stop, Look, Listen: A Fresh Perspective on the Sabbath

Stop, Look, Listen: A Fresh Perspective on the Sabbath

Last month, Israel’s Jerusalem Post posted a rave review of a new book on the Sabbath by Nehemia Polen, a rabbi and professor at Boston’s Hebrew College, calling it “nothing less than a love song to the Sabbath, but with twists.” The book title itself—Stop, Look, Listen: Celebrating Shabbos Through a Spiritual Lens—is mostly self-explanatory. Its contents are a rather poetic presentation on how to keep the seventh day. (Shabbos is the Yiddish word for “Sabbath.”) 

In his book, Polen discusses his title’s three directives in order. He talks about the “foundational rhythm” of Sabbath rest, namely, the rhythm of stopping every seven days. Indeed, the Hebrew letters equivalent to “s,” “b,” and “t” form the root word for Shabbat, which is Hebrew for “Sabbath” and means to rest, to cease, to stop. This same root is used in Genesis 2:2, 3, wherein “on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (emphasis added). As Polen states, “God punctuates time and invites us to do so as well.”

The next step is looking: “First light of dawn and morning sunrise bring the opportunity to Look at the world with fresh eyes, eyes bathed in grace and gazing with benevolence.” That is, once you stop from the hustle and bustle of eking out a living, you take in the wonderful creation God has made for us.

Finally, once you have stopped and are looking, then there is listening: “Listen with greater presence and acuity—to ambient sounds, to the voice of loved ones and wisdom teachers, to the whispers of one’s own heart, to the silence of the infinite.”

Those might sound like some lofty aspirations, in particular in the context of our modern society.

Non-Digital Sabbath

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with our smart devices, which have pretty much become our bodily appendages. We love their convenience but hate their dominance over us.

According to Polen, the Sabbath offers one potential solution: “We may rail against the pervasive intrusions of digital technologies in every aspect of our personal, social, and political lives, but it is we who have allowed them entry into the most intimate places. We are all complicit. Shabbos pushes back, providing a consistent, recurring clearing of space and a proclamation of freedom. This is one reason why Shabbos is called a ‘remembrance of the exodus from Egypt.’”

And although not everyone will be ready to put away their digital devices during the Sabbath, it’s certainly something to think about, if nothing else.

But let’s return to Polen’s third rule of thumb: to listen. Say you do put away your cell phone, your tablet, your television, and everything else for one whole day, from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Polen suggests that you replace those apps and memes and videos with other forms of communication.

Certainly, there is wisdom in unplugging from the daily rat race, but is there a different kind of threat in listening to, for instance, “the whispers of one’s own heart”? Listening is not just hearing. Listening implies giving consideration to and engaging in.

The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Is it wise to listen to something that lies to you? In Scripture we are actually cautioned against it: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).

In fact, there is grave danger in filling your mind indiscriminately, whether digital or otherwise. What we need to measure everything against—from the messages of a revered religious leader to the ad playing after your favorite cat video—is “the word of life” (Philippians 2:16), the “living and powerful” “word of God” (Hebrews 4:12), the Scriptures.

That is the primary objective of the Sabbath day, to become more and more acquainted with, not your environment, but God: “Hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God” (Ezekiel 20:20).

Universal Sabbath

Perhaps the most fascinating line from Polen’s book comes near the end: “The promise of Shabbos is meant for all people.”

There is an unfortunate rabbinic tradition that forbids, on pain of death, Gentiles to keep the Sabbath: “A gentile who observed Shabbat is liable to receive the death penalty.” Polen is clearly stepping beyond that. And it’s a powerful truth. “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27)—man, not Jews alone. As we already saw in Genesis 2, the Sabbath was instituted at the end of the six-day Creation, centuries before the Jewish people even existed. For a more comprehensive understanding of this, check out our free article “Wasn’t the Sabbath made only for the Jews?

So, the Sabbath was instituted for mankind to keep holy. Keeping the Sabbath holy, that is, hallowing it, helps mankind to know God. Ultimately, what this really means is that God wants a relationship with each and every one of us. God desires for you, personally, to experience who He truly is. Why not start doing that with another of our resources “Sabbath Observance Honors the Creator”? Discover the matchless blessings of getting to know God.

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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