Thinking about the new year, I'm taken back to a quote a student of mine gave me nearly 20 years ago. It was from the Jewish writer Ismar Schorsch. Schorsch speaks of the idea of rest and Sabbath which has structured the dreams and practices of many Jews for centuries:
To rest is to acknowledge our limitations, we cease our power to tinker or transform. Willful inactivity is a statement of subservience to a power greater than our own.*
This idea seems strange to one, like me, and perhaps you, who's been taught to be a liberal, modern, achievement-oriented person. I'm taught to believe that through abundant energy and constant effort, I can gain all those things in my best interest: things, personal security, opportunity, happy relationships, accomplishment in caring and loving others. I want to believe that in my power to tinker and transform is my power to free myself. I want to believe that I am not subservient to any power but the limitations imposed upon my by the world around me, or by my body, or by my mind. I want to believe that I have freely entered the relationships that limit me. Yet as I face a new year of activity and goal setting, perhaps words against achievement and accomplished freedom are more freeing that I want to admit. Perhaps willful and prayerful inactivity and non-productivity is necessary, on balance, for a whole and faithful life. This is not to diminish the importance of activity and accomplishment. Nor is it to take flight of duty or effort. It is, perhaps, to actually enhance the importance of these things by putting them back into the context of the real limitations, and to put them into relationship to the power in which they find their true value.
It is, perhaps, the greatest achievement of all to be able to pause long enough to acknowledge realities deeper and powers greater than what we are given by the world around us. This pause is not recreation or sport. It is a kind of listening and thanksgiving. In this pause we may find strength greater than our own for the work ahead, and (if God's grace allows) wisdom more fresh than the simple kinds of knowledge we're taught to depend upon. In balanced moments of willful waste and recreation we may hear the Voice of the One who creates us and encourages our work in the truest sense, until we rest again.
* Ismar Schorsch, “Tending to our Cosmic Oasis,” Melton Journal, New York, 1991, p. 3. Cited by Jason Ellis, “What Does Judaism Say About the Environment,” unpublished, Bates College, Dec. 18, 1992.
Painting by Julien Dupre (1851-1910), "A Moment's Rest"