Resting as Spiritual Practice
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
Years ago I was a group leader for the American Jewish World Service Alternative Spring Breaks. I would accompany groups of college students to poor countries, mostly in Central America, to learn about global poverty and American Jewish responsibility. There were very few rules about how we would observe Jewish traditions on those week-long visits, but one of them was that we would not work on Shabbat.
That was difficult for some students. We were there to work! To help out! The need was so great! How could we waste a day resting?
Sometimes these days when I teach about contemplative spiritual practice, I hear an echo of those students. Isn’t spiritual practice essentially self-care? And isn’t self-care inherently self-indulgent? Why should we have the right to rest when there is so much to do in this world?
In my experience, spiritual resting can be the opposite of self-indulgent. Resting can actually be a form of bittul, of the nullification of the hard-edged self to make room for Something more fluid and all-encompassing. All stripes of spiritual traditions remind us of this important practice. Parker Palmer teaches about the danger of “functional atheism,” acting as if everything depends on us. Yoga teachers often say that savasana, or final resting pose, is the most difficult posture; they don’t always say that the Sanskrit word actually means “corpse pose” and that “letting go” means really letting go.
Resting as a spiritual practice is a way of exploring: Where don’t I have control? How can I feel safe even when I am not exerting my will or striving to change my world? How can I cultivate a sense of trust if it isn’t all up to me? What happens to my sense of gratitude, my capacity to love and maybe even forgive, the demands of my ego? If I put things down, even for a little while, who or what will pick them up?
And yes, resting does bring refreshment and ease and joy, which could be considered self-care. But in the end, self-care is only indulgent if we see ourselves as cut off and apart from the rest of the world. If we see ourselves as inherently connected, then the ease and joy we feel adds more ease and joy back into the world, especially as we know that when we are full, it is easier to flow towards others in blessing.
May this summer afford us all many opportunities to practice this kind of sacred rest!
Rabbi Myriam Klotz
Master yoga teacher Rolf Gates once shared this story: One day, his wife went out early to work. He had many tasks to accomplish that morning (trips to the grocery, the bank, the vet, getting a car inspected, and preparing for an immersive workshop he would be teaching that weekend), all the while on childcare duty with his three-year-old daughter.
Rolf said that he walked out the door with daughter in one hand, bags and keys and coffee mug in the other, his belly clenched and his forehead knotted with stress. How could he possibly complete all he had to do in three hours? His mind was scattered and his body contracted. Then, he said, he offered a silent prayer, “Help me. There must be a better way.” Next, his mind opened to the possibility that he could accomplish the same tasks without the clenching in his body. He could potentially relax into his activities and one by one, engage them fully, with a mental and physical stance of ease and relaxation. Either way, he said, the tasks would get accomplished. Which way would cause him less suffering? He decided to try entering his activities with a mind and body that were at ease, quiet and resting.
He mentally pictured himself in the yoga pose of rest, lying flat on his back in relaxation, and paused for one long full breath which he focused on fully. Refreshed from this somatic and mental stilling, he was able to reboot and enjoy the tasks, thinking creatively about how to move from one to the next.
The Hebrew word for this yoga posture is t’nukha. At the root of this term is the word noakh, rest. Inside the postures, the actions that our bodies actively, outwardly create, there actually exists a root of rest. Through embodied prayer, we have been intentional about strengthening our capacity to let ourselves be nourished by the root of our being – which is exactly that: being, not doing. Ideally, the thirteen bakashot of the weekday Amidah prepare us to stand in the midst of our active daily lives and draw upon that root of being with good alignment, to manifest its fruit through our doing.
Our focus turns to a special aspect of the Amidah, that which we cultivate on Shabbat. On Shabbat, the rest within the pose comes to the foreground. Praying the Shabbat Amidah prayer is a Jewish way of pausing to turn our awareness to that inner root of rest and to cultivate our connection to it even more deeply than during the week. Use this audio teaching as a way to embrace this practice and give yourself some time to rest.
Note: This teaching and audio guide has been excerpted from Rabbi Myriam Klotz’s Prayer Project module, “Embodying the Amidah.” For more information about the Prayer Project, click here.
Lose That Hurry!
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
For many of us, the summer season offers opportunities to slow down, to find time for recreation and rest. But often the impulse to do things differently, to make the most of vacation, leads to frenetic activity. We drive fast or travel great distances in an attempt to squeeze in the most we can. We plan multiple stops, important activities, sights to see and things to do. And often we wind up more exhausted at the end of our vacation than when we began.
Of course, many of us are exhausted from the rhythm of life, whether work or retirement. Time is money, and life is running on a clock. Let’s not miss a minute! We strive to accomplish as much as possible, and often feel we’ve fallen behind despite our best efforts.
The Baal Shem Tov offers an antidote. Reading the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11:13-21), he pays attention to the warning against forgetting God’s goodness and turning to other gods (vs. 17): “For YHVH’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that YHVH is assigning to you”. Hidden in this verse is the phrase “you will soon perish,” which in Hebrew is va-avad’tem meheirah (ואבתם מהרה). Literally, the verb va-avad’tem means “you will lose” and the adverb attached to it (meheirah) signifies “hurriedly”. On this the Baal Shem Tov teaches: “we must always seek a state of a settled mind, not rushing. This is the sense of the verse ‘you will soon perish’: you must lose the hurriedness.” That we not “soon perish” – if we wish truly to live, and live fully – we have to learn to slow down, to lose the hurriedness.
There is a tradition that within the three paragraphs of the Shema are references to the Ten Commandments. The phrase connected to the command “you shall not murder” is our phrase “you will soon perish.” In light of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, our tendency to rush, to do everything quickly, to move without cease, is to commit murder. We are killing our souls, our bodies, our minds.
So, let’s stop for a moment, and pay attention to Pablo Neruda, who echoes the Baal Shem Tov:
Keeping still / A callarse (Pablo Neruda, from Extravagaria, 1958) Translated by Dan Bellm
Now we will count to twelve
and let’s keep quiet.
For once on earth
let’s not talk in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
A moment like that would smell sweet,
no hurry, no engines,
all of us at the same time
in need of rest.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would stop harming whales
and the gatherer of salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and go for a walk with their brothers
out in the shade, doing nothing.
Just don’t confuse what I want
with total inaction;
it’s life and life only;
I’m not talking about death.
If we weren’t so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and could maybe do nothing for once
a huge silence might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves,
of threatening ourselves with death;
perhaps the earth could teach us;
everything would seem dead
and later be alive.
Now I will count up to twelve
and you keep quiet
and I will go.
Guided Practice for Menucha
Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell
Menuchah/rest is a quality of experience, a way of being in our lives that requires active cultivation. Without this, it is likely that we will only be in an orientation of fixing, making, figuring out and doing. This teaching and meditation flows from how our Sages, as brought forward by R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, as he understood the verse “On the seventh day, God finished the work that God had been doing” (Gen. 2:2):
|The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. 2 On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. 3 And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.||
א וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָם: ב וַיְכַל אֱלֹקים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה: ג וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָא אֱלֹקים לַעֲשׂוֹת
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 1951, p.23
The words: “On the seventh day God finished His work” (Genesis 2:2) seem to be a puzzle. Is it not said: “He rested on the seventh day”? “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth” (Exodus 20:11)? We would surely expect the Bible to tell us that on the sixth day God finished His work. Obviously, the ancient rabbis concluded, there was an act of creation on the seventh day. Just as heaven and earth were created in six days, menuha was created on the Sabbath.
“After the six days of creation—what did the universe still lack? Menuha. Came the Sabbath, came menuha, and the universe was complete” (see Rashi on Megillah 9a).
Menuha which we usually render with “rest” means here much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain, or activity of any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive. This must have been the view of the ancient rabbis if they believed that it took a special act of creation to bring it into being, that the universe would be incomplete without it.
“What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose.” (Genesis Rabbah 10:9) To the biblical mind menucha is the same as happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony. It is the state wherein [a person] lies still, wherein the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. It is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust…
Hashkivenu: Bless This Day and Let It Go
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz
Cause us, Adonai our God, to lie down beshalom (in peace), fulfilled from the day.
God, help us to know whether this day was difficult or rich with pleasure;
You are here for us.
Thank You for Your presence in my life on days of joy and sadness.
The daily lists are long and I am tired God.
Though weary, my thoughts are racing.
Now that it is time to pause, to lie down,
I need my mind as well as my body to embrace the completion of a day.
If relaxing is elusive, I will accept that as well.
My body may be tired, but my thoughts sometimes require more time to settle.
I will show compassion to myself as You, Merciful One, show kindness to me.
Whatever thoughts flow through my head are okay.
When my mind, body, and spirit are ready,
I ask that You help me to bless this day, and let it go.Bless it, and let it go.
I have done what I can and now it is time for sleep.
Help me, God, to relax.
Breathing out the stress of the day,
Breathing in a slow, deep, breath.
All I need to do is focus on my breath,
Your breath flowing through me
Sustaining me, giving me life, keeping me alive
While I rest, breathing in and out; in and out.
When it is time to go to sleep, may I be blessed to lie down comfortably—
Whether a firm mattress or pillow-top, outdoors in the wilderness, a luxury hotel, or camp bunk bed,
Wherever I sleep, help me to wake up renewed.
Let me be at peace wherever I lie down for the night—
Protected, sated, safe in my environment, comfortable,
Inclined to do what is right.
Your blanket of protection spreads over me.
A shelter from a turbulent day or night.
A warm embrace at the end of a day filled with sadness or joy.
You protect me, Am Yisrael, and the city yearning for wholeness.
God, help me lie down in peace.
May I find contentment at the end of this day.
(This piece originally appeared in Good Noticing! 100 Teachings in Jewish Mindfulness Inspired by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, which featured voices from the IJS community and our friends and family.
The full book is available for purchase here.)