Sabbath in the City

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a member of the Shalom Center Board. She lives in Minneapolis, leads interfaith work in the Twin Cities, and writes for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The city of Philadelphia was in the throes of a record-setting blizzard when I joined a conference call the other day with my colleague Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center.

Joining the meeting a few minutes late, I heard Arthur already beginning his “Dvar Torah” or “Word of Torah” at the start of the meeting. Arthur lyrically described the beauty and wonder of the snowstorm and the surreal quality of this large metropolitan area completely shut down, with hardly a car moving through the snow-clogged streets.

Arthur remembered other such unexpected shutdowns of major East Coast cities and mused about the progression of reactions people have when they cannot hurry through their normal day’s tasks. At first, he said, people frantically scrambled to dig out their cars and shovel their drives, intent on fighting the storm to get to work.

But when it became clear that the blizzard had overcome the city’s usual rhythms and no one could possibly get anywhere, people slowed down, surrendering to the power of nature, and actually relaxed into the forced day off from everyday obligations. Whatever day of the week it was, Arthur joyfully observed, Sabbath had come to the city.

What happens to a major American city transformed by an enforced Sabbath? For the homeless, any cold spell is a nightmare. But for those privileged to have adequate food and shelter, a snow day (as schoolchildren everywhere know) is a gift, a time to set aside the usual preoccupation with all the things that must be done, with the incessant race against time and endless piles of work to be done. It is Sabbath, so people smile more and move more slowly.

For one blessed moment in time, there is no point in hurrying. There is time to spare and enjoy – to read a book, watch a movie, or call a friend. My mother, also in Philadelphia, observed that phone lines were clogged because, she said, no one had anything else to do but to talk with each other!

Today the cities of the East Coast are digging out, and businesses are scurrying to assure customers that they will be open today. People are once again struggling against nature, determined that human will can triumph over the natural rhythms of the earth.

But for that single blessed day, the universe overwhelmed our routines, our frantic commitment to productivity, and our addictive habit of rushing from one task to another. For that day there was nothing to do but rest, wonder over nature’s power, and savor the gift of time and the people we love.