Last week we began this sermon series on the Three Abrahamic Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam by discussing Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who were both given promises by God to become great nations. Even though Ishmael is driven out of his father’s house by Sarah (the jealous and protective mother of Isaac), God watches over Ishmael and he becomes, according to the Quran, the father of Islam. Isaac becomes the father of Judaism and therefore a forefather to Christianity. (Please note that neither of these religions existed at the time of Abraham.)
Parts two and three of this series on the Abrahamic Faith focus on what I see as some of the key concepts and/or practices of Judaism and Islam. I also believe that these concepts are not exclusively Jewish or Muslim, but contain spiritual wisdom for all of us if we care to look and listen. The three I’ve chosen to explore for Judaism are covenant, Sabbath and blessing.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
A unique belief introduced into Jewish theology was the idea of a covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God. This was a two-sided agreement with the Divine, a sacred promise, a contract, in which both sides have a responsibility to the other. On the people’s side, obedience to God is expected. On the divine side, God grants special favors and is bound by God’s own ethical agreements to the people. These were the three great covenants in Jewish history:
- Noah – God sets a rainbow in the sky as a symbol of God’s covenant to Noah, his descendants, and every living creature, to never again send another great flood.
- Abraham and God – essentially God says, “I will be your God and your protector, you will be circumcised.”
- Moses “re-established” the covenant between God and the people. God is said to have met Moses on Mt. Sinai and given the people a set of rules for righteous living (Torah). This includes the 10 commandments. It also includes a set of social norms, prescribed religious feasts, and detailed instructions for the construction of a portable tabernacle (think Indian Jones and the Ark of the Covenant). These make up the 613 mizvot, laws, or divine commandments Orthodox Jews are required to keep. Conservative Jews and Reform Jews have more options about which laws they can choose to follow or not.
A covenant describes a personal and interactive relationship, including responsibility and accountability, between the Divine and humanity. The question this raises for me is whether we, as Christians, feel that we have this sort of relationship with God? Or do we simply rely on God to be present at all times, to provide strength, comfort, guidance, or whatever is needed without any return on our part? And how do we feel about that? Do we have a responsibility to God?
For about the last 3000 years, Jews have observed their Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown on Saturday. It was so important that it was commanded by God in the 10 commandments and echoed in Leviticus and multiple other places in scripture. It was not just a day to stay home from the office, if you will, but to slow down, reflect, build relationships through conversation and prayer, give time to your spiritual life through reading and study, and rekindle your marriage through making love. Everyone was given the day off… even from making food and lighting a fire.
We find the basis for the Jewish Sabbath in Genesis 1, in the story of Creation. God created the world and all that is in it in six days. On the seventh day God rested and enjoyed God’s creation. If resting was important for God, then certainly it is even more important for people!
Obviously, this has not been strictly a Jewish concept. Many of us can remember “back in the day” when Sundays consisted of church, sharing a family meal, and spending time with family and friends. Shops weren’t open, and there weren’t kids sports on Sunday mornings. It was a day of rest, renewal, nurturing your body and your relationships.
Sadly, we’ve lost this essential rhythm to our lives. We fill our lives with things to do… because action and accomplishment are “better” than rest, better than doing “nothing.” Even when we have down time, we fill it with our computers, phones, iPads, and televisions. We read books, but not necessarily to edify, to escape.
Our lack of rest and reflection colors all that we do and all that we are. When we are exhausted – physically, mentally and spiritually – we become more anxious, more fearful, less grounded and less able to make good decisions. When we don’t seek to grow spiritually, our souls stagnate and lose touch with the Divine.
There is a little book called Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas by Arthur Green, who is one of the world’s preeminent authorities on Jewish thought and spirituality. Green suggests that there have been whole generations of Jews who have rebelled against the Sabbath laws, until their observance became the exception rather than the norm. Still, he says, that Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) is needed more than ever, but perhaps it needs a more contemporary perspective and so he offers a simplified Shabbat for moderns
Ten Pathways toward a New Shabbat
- Stay at home. Spend quality time with family and real friends.
- Celebrate with others: at the table, in the synagogue, with friends or community.
- Study or read something that will edify, challenge, or make you grow.
- Be alone. Take some time for yourself. Check in with yourself. Review your week. Ask yourself where you are in your life.
- Mark the beginning and end of this sacred time by lighting candles and making kiddush [a ceremony of prayer and blessing over wine] on Friday night and saying havdalah [formal prayer marking the end of the Sabbath] on Saturday night.
- Don’t do anything you have to do for your work life. This includes obligatory reading, homework for kids (even without writing!), unwanted social obligations, and preparing for work as well as doing your job itself.
- Don’t spend money. Separate completely from the commercial culture that surrounds us so much. This includes doing business of all sorts. No calls to the broker, no following up on ads, no paying of bills. It can all wait.
- Don’t use the computer. Turn off the iPhone or smartphone. Live and breathe for a day without checking messages. Declare your freedom from this new master of our minds and our time. Find the time for face-to-face conversations with people around you, without Facebook.
- Don’t travel. Avoid especially commercial travel and places like airports, hotel check-ins, and similar depersonalizing encounters. Stay free of situations in which people are likely to tell you to “have a nice day” (Shabbat already is a nice day, thank you).
- Don’t rely on commercial or canned video entertainment, including the TV as well as the computer screen. Discover what there is to do in life when you are not being entertained.
How would it feel to try some of these? Could you consider a Sabbath day once a month? Or a Sabbath hour, or half day?
One thing we rarely hear about Judaism is the role of blessing. Yet there are hundreds of traditional blessings that Jews have for every occasion. From blessing the different kinds of food they eat, to the varied things in creation, to kindnesses, good news and bad news, and everything in-between. The purpose of the blessing is awareness, to increase the conscious awareness of the Divine in our lives and our world by offering a blessing for it.
Simply put, if I bless an apple I’m saying: in this apple, I see God.
There seems to be a blessing for everything. My favorite is the bathroom blessing:
Blessed are you, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe who created humans with wisdom and created within them many openings and many cavities. It is exposed and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You for even one hour. Blessed are you, Lord, Healer of all flesh who acts wondrously.
Rabbi Jack Riemer, in his blog, said, “with all due respect for traditional blessings, I believe we need a few new blessings, such as before we perform the sacred act of voting, and before we use our computers, to help remind us not to misuse this powerful tool to spread malicious gossip or evil speech. Here’s another one I highly recommend: a prayer to recite when facing the difficult task of emptying the contents of our parents’ home after they die.”
What would it look like to walk through life offering blessings even for the littlest things? The sun, the sky, the rain, our coffee or tea, our animals, creation, music? Could we incorporate more moments of gratitude and blessing in such a way as to remind us of God’s presence in our daily lives?
So, I offer these Jewish concepts of covenant, Sabbath and blessing, not only to give us insight into the Jewish understanding of, and relationship with,God, but also to offer us things to think about when it comes to our own spiritual lives.
Shalom, peace be with you,