Commandment #4: How to create mindfulness in your life

This is a remote control. On Friday afternoon, before sundown, I can move this. No big deal. Look at me go. But on Friday night, when the Sabbath starts, as an Orthodox Jew — I can’t move this. 

In Jewish rabbinic law this is called muktzah. Some people find this law mystifying, maybe even a little weird. And to be perfectly honest with you, I think I was one of those people till recently.

And then I learned something about muktzah that kind of blew my mind. It turned that formerly quirky law into something super, duper meaningful, and relevant, and kind of amazing.

So…don’t forget the remote control. I’m gonna’ come back to it. But first, I want to tell you something embarrassing about myself. A while ago I tried to develop a mindfulness habit.

I was feeling scatter-brained, and anxious, and overwhelmed — and I thought that having some dedicated space in my day to meditate, to declutter my brain, would really help.

I used one of those mindfulness apps. And the first few times it was great. I felt genuinely at peace. Relaxed. Zen, if you will.

But then…I noticed something. I noticed that the app tracked my “meditation streak” — the number of consecutive days I did a session. And it started becoming, like, an obsession, keeping that streak up. And at the same time, my buddy started using the very same app.

And soon I found myself comparing my streak to his streak. He was not going to out-zen me, darnit! And then I did something that, looking back, just seems so totally, utterly ridiculous. 

I started downloading the meditation sessions, and listening to them at double-speed. That way, on a busy day, I could just squeeze one in and check it off my to-do list.

And then it dawned on me. Wow. I can’t help myself, can I? This meditation habit was my one oasis from all that doing and progress and accomplishment…and I corrupted it. I turned it into the very thing it was meant to protect against.

But the more I think about it, the less I blame myself. That’s the world we live in, isn’t it? We are a society obsessed with doing. We celebrate burning the midnight oil. Hustle culture. Maximal productivity. 

How did it get this way? I don’t really know. Historians might tell you it dates back to the 19th-century engineer Fredrick Taylor, who introduced scientific management to the world, which entailed the dogged pursuit of economic efficiency and labor productivity — in other words, squeezing every ounce out of every minute of the modern worker. 

The recent technological explosion certainly has something to do with it. The way email and text has creeped into every nook and cranny of our day. How many of us answer emails late into the evening, and rattle off a few more the moment we get up. It’s never been easier to do more, more often. 

But I’m not particularly interested in the historical reasons for how it got this way — but rather, what we should do about it. For me, the answer is clear: It’s the Sabbath. AKA Shabbat. 

One of the Big Ten Commandments. One of the foundational principles of Judaism: Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days may you work and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor.

You know, I have a hard time explaining certain things about my Jewish faith. Like, waving around palm fronds on the holiday of Sukkot. 

But the Sabbath — I never had an issue with that one. It just seems to make good intuitive sense, that one day out of the week, we take a pause from all that doing and just be.

But it turns out, the very idea of Sabbath was historically sort of a radical one. There was a very great Jewish thinker who sadly passed away a few years ago. He was the Chief Rabbi of England, and his name was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

He points out that one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world is changing how we think about time. Before there was a thing called Judaism, he said, people measured time either by the sun — the solar calendar of 365 days aligning us with the seasons — or by the moon. Meaning, by months of roughly 30 days.

But the seven-day week? There’s no such counterpart for that in nature. The very idea of the week was born in the Torah…in these Ten Commandments. And then eventually, explained Rabbi Sacks, it made its way through the world via Christianity and Islam, both of which borrowed it from Judaism.

In his words, “We have years because of the sun, months because of the moon, and weeks because of the Jews.”

How do you combat the obsession with doing? By creating a sacred space in time in which doing simply doesn’t belong. A time during which we are commanded — I don’t care if you’re in the mood or not, or whether it works for you at this precise moment. You gotta call it quits.

Every week, the Jews created an oasis in time. But there’s a critical misunderstanding about the Sabbath that I think gets in the way of unlocking its full power. 

A former boss of mine, Kari, told me a sort of game-changing bit about “have-to-do’s” and “get-to-dos.” The idea is that there are so many “have-to-do’s” in our life. Like, for example, I have to take out the garbage.

What’s the mood that I go into when I think, I “have to take out the garbage.” I could easily find myself annoyed. Stressed. Resentful. Thinking things like, “This place is such a pigsty! Why do I have to take out the garbage every time!? And the dishes too!!!”

But what if you flipped the “I have to take out the garbage” on its head. What if instead you said to yourself: “I get to create a clean, peaceful, welcoming space for this family.” Whoa. That’s different.

And you can’t fake it — you can just say the words and not mean it — but that would be naïve. But my experience is that, for all the “I have to dos” in my life — there is something that can be tapped into, a deeper, more compelling “why.” That, to me, is Shabbat.

The ultimate action begins with forethought. In Hebrew, Sof ma’aseh be’machshava techila. That’s a line we say every Friday night in the Lecha Dodi prayer. First you picture the completed house, then you start the process of building it.

Shabbat is about taking all of the ma’aseh, all of the actions that we do in the course of the week, all of the “have to dos,” and injecting them with forethought. With context. With the why that brings it all to life and makes it all worthwhile.

In that way, the Sabbath is about so much more than just rest. It’s more of an active non-doing. It’s about making sure that we don’t get lost in the doing, in the actions.

Because doing for doing’s sake…it’s lame. And it’s stale. And it’s mind-numbing, and soul-crushing. But all doing — when done in the service of others, of the world, of God — makes it into something you “get” to do.

So what happens at sundown that I suddenly can’t touch a remote control? Well, because Shabbat is the day that I lay my hands down from my tools, I stop changing and manipulating the world — completely, even from doing something as seemingly insignificant as clicking a switch. And, I don’t even move it lest I come to click it. It’s muktzah — literally, set aside. 

But, there’s more to it. Here’s an interesting detail about the laws of muktzah. Buckle up, we’re gonna get in the weeds here, but I think it’s worth it. (I think.) 

Let’s say you’ve got a pair of socks that are soaking wet. You can’t touch those on the Sabbath. Why? Well — and I’m oversimplifying here, but we’re almost out of time, so go with me — “wringing” is one of the forbidden actions on the Sabbath. So as a protective measure, to ensure that you won’t fall to the temptation of wringing out that garment, the socks are “muktzah.”

But here’s a question. What if the socks were soaking wet as the Sabbath began — but then became dry on the Sabbath? Dry socks aren’t muktzah. All good, right? Wrong.

Dry socks on the Sabbath are muktzah if they were wet when Shabbat began. Okay, I realize we’re talking about wet socks here, but I find this law so amazing, and I couldn’t think of a better representation of why Sabbath should matter so much to all of us.

Think about it: Muktzah crystallizes the status of something the moment the Sabbath begins. What it is as Shabbat starts, that’s what it is on the Sabbath. And, that’s true about ourselves as well. Once a week we get to stop, to taste what we’ve become. Who we are, as opposed to what we do. 

That’s what’s so beautiful, so counter-cultural, so necessary about Shabbat. In an Age of Doing, Shabbat says no. Not here. Not now. Come as you are. Lay down your tools. Relinquish your identity as a human doing, and for one day in this week, reclaim your identity as a human being.

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