The Rest of Shabbat – Parshat Bereshit 5781

A year ago after the High Holidays, I found myself completely run down, and I ended up with pneumonia. I knew it was coming. From the first cough just prior to Rosh Hashanah, I could tell this was going to be more than a cold or the “just a virus” my physician thought it was. However, instead of resting, I pushed forward. After all, I had services to lead and programs to run; it was the holiday season, and that’s no time for a rabbi to be sick. So, I coughed my way through Yom Kippur and pushed my way through Sukkot and Simchat Torah while nursing pulled muscles from coughing. Finally, my body had enough. In the midst of teaching on a Wednesday night, I started shivering. The 102-degree fever had set in, and my body was done. In the game of mind versus body, my body won out and left my mind no choice but to simply sit and rest for the next 10 days. 

This story may sound familiar to you. So nany of us have it in our nature to get our work done and not let others down, and we feel guilty for cancelling a meeting or missing an event, holding in us the expectation that we can be everything to everyone and do all the things. But that’s just not possible. We’re human, and we actually have breaking points. The one reliable answer is to force ourselves to rest, giving our bodies a break. This is such a fundamental need that it is one of the first mandates of the Torah.

This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the very first portion of the Torah. We begin again with our familiar story and move quickly from the days of creation through the narrative of Adam and Eve in the beautiful Garden of Eden to the first time someone challenged God. From there we have the story of Cain and Abel and the first explosive sibling rivalry. At the end we jump forward rather suddenly in time to the line of Noah.  

At the end of the creation story is the creation of Shabbat. Chapter 2, verse 3 of Genesis reads, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.” This commandment imposes a pattern of work and rest on the entirety of creation. However, before humans were created, there was no need for an earthly Shabbat. Animals rest when their bodies mandate it and wake when nature says it’s time. Human beings, however, have the ability to control our time, to schedule ourselves to death. It was humans who needed the mandated rest, and we could not have thrived without this commandment. 

I’ll be honest – as a leader in the community, I don’t often model the best self care. Yes, I take time to work out and connect with the earth on a walk each day, but I’m notoriously bad at taking the time to really rest when my body tells me it needs it. The creation of Shabbat in our Torah portion this week reminds us all that even God needed to rest, and now more than ever we need that time to refresh, renew, and reset.

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