For a week recently, I buried myself in the stacks of my seminary’s historic archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, researching a doctoral dissertation in Jewish history.
All of this happened because my congregation allowed me to take a sabbatical from my daily duties.
What is a sabbatical? It is a time congregations grant clergy as a period of rest and reflection — to take leave of one’s responsibilities. The goal is to recharge the spiritual batteries and accomplish something special that time would not allow during the daily routine of clergy.
The sabbatical comes from the Biblical idea of God decreeing that man shall rest — just as God did after creating the world — on the seventh day. Even the animals, according to Scripture, have a sabbatical since Biblical law forbids man to work them in the fields on the Sabbath.
Crops have a sabbatical, too, and fields are left to lie fallow to rejuvenate the soil.
From Leviticus:“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord.”
Today academicians, teachers, clergy and people in the corporate world use sabbaticals to pursue research or to reevaluate their lives.
Rest is a state of mind and being. For me, it is a daily joy to exercise, read a collection of poetry, play the flute and continue along on my dissertation. I am engaged in a lot of meaningful activities, but I also take time to do nothing but sit by the pool.
A sabbatical means to rest and that means it is appropriate not to be productive. In other words, it’s OK to just be in the moment and relax.
But what does being productive mean?
Our society continually emphasizes that being productive defines us and the value of being human.
But is that really true?
One of the greatest blessings has been to be free of time restraints by the minute, which is how we live in the real world. The idea of getting lost in the archives or reading a collection of poetry, without any awareness of the clock has been one of the best memories I’ve had during this time.
Just think about how many time devices we carry around — cellphones, watches, tablets and laptops — which constrain and structure our daily existence so we can be productive. Technology in calendars remind us when an appointment begins and when it is about to end.
Are we not completely enslaved to time?
This way of living is not automatically bad if being productive is not the only focus of living. Human beings need to retreat from the work of being so structured .
Maybe that’s why God led the way by being the first to institutionalize the weekly rest, using the Hebrew word “Shabbat”or Sabbath.
What does it mean to make it (the seventh day) holy?
God introduced something revolutionary which is that time itself could be declared sacred rather than be a millstone around our necks The Sabbath was a day of liberation from daily burdens. That is why the Psalmist wrote: “A song to the Sabbath day, it is good to give thanks to the Eternal One and to sing of God’s lofty name.”
Do we all not owe a debt of gratitude to the Hebrew Bible for introducing us to the idea of the Sabbath which realize that Sabbath time is sacred from any other day of the week because it is God’s day. It is the day that we are supposed to give back to God for the lives we have and the blessings we too often forget during the course of a busy week.
A day of rest enables us to see life from a different perspective as compared to living as a small cog in the wheel that goes round and round each day. Rest is about pulling back and enjoying other kinds of delights in addition to our work obligations. The sages of the ancient world taught us then that not working — being with family, eating well, participating in communal prayer and studying — make up the core kinds of activities that honor God’s Sabbath day.
Such a day gives us time to grasp the blessings of life and to see that we are more than the labor we perform each day.
It lets us see that we are holy beings, too.