One Monday night, I sat in a circle with my ninth and tenth grade students.1 We were in the middle of a unit on wellness and k'dushat haguf, "the holiness of our bodies." I asked them to give me an example of a way Judaism encourages us to take care of ourselves. They sat thoughtfully, unsure of how to answer my question. I then asked, "How do you know that it is important to rest and recharge ourselves, at least once a week?" They cried out, "Shabbat!" We discussed how lucky we are to be members of a tradition that not only values self-care, but also commands us to take a break once a week.
We started to think creatively about what activities most recharge us. I told them they couldn't answer, "sleep." My students mentioned reading, listening to music, going for a walk, taking a hot shower, bowling, drinking a cup of tea, or even watching television. After making promises to add a sense of holiness to these mundane activities by deliberately doing them on Shabbat, we concluded our class session with a fifteen-minute guided meditation. My students left feeling more relaxed, calmer, and renewed.
Parashat Yitro contains the familiar words of the Ten Commandments, including the fourth commandment about Shabbat: "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work-you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements" (Exodus 20:8-10).
As is common with today's middle school and high school students, my confirmation students are already overprogrammed and stressed out by school, commitments, and extracurricular activities. Nonetheless, as our discussion progressed, they realized that they have so many of the tools for self-care already at their disposal: they just haven't learned how to say "no" to overextending themselves or how to say "yes" to taking care of their minds, bodies, and souls.
That leads me to wonder how many of us-Jewish adults-know how to give ourselves a true Shabbat; a day of rest, a day to recharge, and a day to reconnect with our divine nature?
It is almost deceptively easy to do so. Just start by setting aside time on Friday night or Saturday to do a favorite activity like the students did when they created their lists. The Torah must have recognized that overwork and perfectionism is a standard part of the human experience. By ritualizing rest, and by making it a holy act, our ancestors gave us an incredibly important gift. We are truly fortunate to have inherited a tradition that values rest and renewal as part of our weekly routine.
As a self-confessed "recovering perfectionist," it is all too easy for me to overcommit myself or to think a week of twelve-to-thirteen hour days is normal. Many of us in our society are like this: overachievers, people-pleasers, workaholics. We can run, run, run: we only stop when our bodies rebel and we get sick, burn out, or worse. Thus, I've been thinking a lot lately about when we say "yes" and when we say "no." Perhaps, given the model of Shabbat, this day of rest can inspire us to say no to working too hard and yes to Shabbat. We can even take it to the next level and say, "yes, and . . ." What do I mean by this?
Over the past two years, I've been taking classes in improvisation and have been part of an improv theater troupe. Oh, the fun! I strongly recommend studying improv to anyone who needs more of a sense of play in their life. One of the first things you learn when you study improv is the yes, and . . . rule. When you are making up a scene with your partner on stage, you have no idea what either one of you will offer as a character, place, or situation. When your scene partner offers something, it is your job to say yes. For instance, the scene would immediately die if one person said, "Welcome to the rodeo, cowboy!" and the scene partner said, "This isn't a rodeo, it's a suburban mall." Rather, the scene partner should say yes to the offer about the rodeo.
But, the rule isn't just to say yes, it is to say yes, and . . . You could just answer, "It's good to be here at the rodeo." But then there is nowhere to go in the scene. Therefore, you add "and" so that you can build on the idea: "It's good to be here at the rodeo, and I am ready to seek vengeance on my old adversary, Wild Chayim Chuckstein." Now, the scene is really moving forward and you want to know what's going to happen when the rivals face off!
I hope you'll think about saying yes and maybe even yes, and to Shabbat. In my life, I want to create a more deliberate feeling of Shabbat each week and I want to add to it over time. I want to be sure that the activities I schedule for Friday night and Saturday are those that enrich my heart and soul and I want to encourage others to join me in that special place. I want to make self-care a priority and I want to stand by my commitment to do so. May we all find our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls reaching an ever-higher level of peace, health, and connection, on Shabbat and every day.
1. Portions of this first appeared in the New York Jewish Week article, "Saying Yes, Saying No" ( http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/reform_really/saying_yes_saying_no )
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the "Reform, Really" column featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
As Rabbi Bellows points out, Judaism requires conscious living to appreciate its many gifts, and it is in the tenets of the Decalogue that we find this most apparent. Over the years, many individuals have said to me that first and foremost, living a Jewish life means living in an ethical fashion and that observance of the Ten Commandments is at the root of such a life. Yet, how many of us fully consider the implications of living a life in accordance with the Decalogue?
For example, we are instructed not to steal. While none of us would consider robbing a bank, how many of us routinely steal the intellectual property of others by downloading pirated music and movies? How many of us consider that we are stealing someone else's time when we decide to kill a few hours by looking at new cars without advising the salesperson that we are not seriously shopping? How many of us utter lashon hara, "gossip," without viewing it as stealing another's reputation?
Perhaps a more subtle example involves the commandment to honor one's father and mother. Few of us would even consider berating an older parent in public. But how many of us have sat in a doctor's office and addressed a parent the way we might talk to a six-year-old child? How many of us have assumed wrongly that wisdom declines with age?
There are other similar examples with most all of God's Ten Utterances. Living Jewishly means living consciously and with empathy for all who enter our lives. For living a life in accordance with the Ten Commandments means evaluating our own actions in terms of how they affect others, and whether our actions are truly representative of a life lived in God's image.
Rabbi Alan R. Freedman is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, Texas.
Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426