The Mitzvah of Relaxation

Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, gave an interview 2010 with two Argentinian journalists where he spoke eloquently about the need to promote a culture of relaxation in a world dominated by the culture of work.   Responding to the question, “Do we need to rediscover the meaning of leisure,” Pope Francis stated:

“Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day. More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society.”

This quote by Pope Francis was used in Mark Oppenheimer’s article from this weekend’s New York Times, “Pope Francis Has a Few Words in Support of Leisure,” where Oppenheimer describes the tensions within American culture regarding setting aside the Sabbath, or Shabbat, as a day of rest.   According to Oppenheimer, while different religious traditions understand the concept of a Sabbath differently, everything ranging from refraining from many ordinary activities to simply attending a place of worship, even some agnostics and atheists are choosing to turn their phones off one day a week as a kind of “secular Sabbath,” a way to mark a small portion of their week as different (sacred?) from the rest.  Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s article describes the tapestry of Sabbath practices in the American religious landscape for the purpose of reminding us of the many and varied ways that one can obligate themselves to relax.

I hardly consider myself a paragon of relaxation, as I will admit that I can barely go minutes without checking my email on my iPhone, iPad, Macbook, or any other electronic device in my possession.   However, as I read Oppenheimer’s article, I found myself deeply moved by the idea that the conscious desire to do things that we enjoy and refrain from the labor of the rest of the week is not simply an act of work-life balance, but a mitzvah.   When God commanded us to refrain from creative labor on Shabbat, it was as if God said, in emphatic terms, “Relax!  I know the work is never done, but that does not mean you cannot take a pause.”   In a world that becomes more interconnected with each passing day, and with the lines between work, home, and leisure continuously blurred, we would all benefit from taking the Pope’s advice, and embracing our own Jewish tradition, and making Shabbat, however we understand it, a part of us, reaping the benefits of the mitzvah of relaxation.

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