This morning I am sitting in my pj’s sipping coffee and looking out at the sub zero Minnesota winter. Last Saturday I was in Jerusalem, sitting in my pj’s sipping tea and relishing the quiet of spending Shabbat with my friend Michal. The contrasts go far beyond geography, outdoor temperature and choice of beverage. In Hebrew the word for Sabbatical is “Shabbaton.” In the U.S. the opportunity to take a Sabbatical is generally limited to those in education, and utilized most frequently by college and university professors. However the concept of taking a Sabbatical and its roots go way back to ancient Israel. For example, in Leviticus 25 (third book of the Torah) there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year.
During my son’s years in religious school, the term “Shabbaton” was used as a term for a retreat where a group of classmates would spend the entire 24 hours of Shabbat together, with a focus on Shabbat. In my mind, and in my experience, the need/desire for Shabbat, Shabbaton, Sabbatical are all intertwined.
In his book The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland, author Bill Holm (who I feel so privileged to have known) wrote:
After a while, the United States is simply too much: too much religion and not enough gods, too much news and not enough wisdom, too many weapons of mass destruction - or, for that matter, of private destruction (why search so far away when they live right under our noses?), too much entertainment and not enough beauty, too much electricity and not enough light, too much lumber and not enough forests, too much real estate and not enough earth, too many books and not enough readers, too many runners, and not enough strollers, too many freeways, too many cars, too many malls, too many prisons, too much security but not enough civility , too many humans but not enough eagles. And the worst excess of all: too many wars, too much misery and brutality – reflected as much in our own eyes as in those of our enemies. So I come here to this spare place. A little thinning and pruning is a good anodyne for the soul. We see more clearly when the noise is less, the objects fewer.
At Kibbutz Lotan I had discovered my inner passionate pruner. However, I am not very skilled at thinning and pruning in my own life. Which brings me back to spending Shabbat with my friend in Jerusalem. Michal, by her own description is “not very religious,” yet she keeps an almost Orthodox practice of Shabbat. On Friday morning she went to the big market in Jerusalem, stocked up of fish, fruit and vegetables, returned home a cooked up a veritable feast to last through the next few days. As the sun lowered, all of life slowed down. The work was done. No computers would be turned on, no telephones answered, lights would remain on dimly, a big thermal pot of hot water was on the counter for tea.
Michal’s adult son, Nahrie, joined us and we washed our hands and sat down for dinner. With a clear resonant voice, Michal sang the blessings for the bread and wine. The words were familiar, the melodies were not. Two friends, two sons, and a wonderful meal. There was something so beautiful in the composition of that experience.
During the other six days of the week, Michal’s life in Jerusalem has as many pushes and pulls as my life in St. Peter. She is a teacher at a high school, is completing and graduate degree at a University in Tel Aviv and has elderly parents needing time and attention. Her very strict adherence to keeping Shabbat, also keeps her sane.
I am not sure how that information informs my life in St. Peter. When visiting my mom, the day after I returned to St. Peter, she asked me if I was happy at all to be home. I said, “Sure I am. I am happy to sleep in my own bed, and drink coffee in my own kitchen in the morning.” And she said, “Oh good. I was afraid you would be miserable.”
I really am not miserable but I realize my life here is too dense, often too noisy, and I don’t know how to thin and prune it. However, I like that metaphor. In gardening you know if you want certain plants to thrive, you need to pull out encroaching weeds, and sometimes even thin out some healthy plants to enable others to grow into their fullness. So on this bitterly cold Minnesota morning, I am thinking about gardening – about this garden that is my life.