Want A Break In The Monotony of Lockdown? Try This Jewish Ritual

At week number whatever this is of stay-at-home orders, many of us are feeling a little… bored. Last night, even my 6th-grader, who I don’t think had complained even once since his school closed, finally voiced some dissatisfaction with doing the same thing every day. (His school is actually doing an excellent job maintaining a reasonable class and assignment load, and I pointed out that in some ways it’s not all that different from getting on the bus and going to school day after day – but still.) I noticed recently that even Father Patrick Desbois, a public figure whose work might make us think of him as a pretty serious guy, posted a meme joking about how the days of the week might be losing some of their meaning.

I’m reminded of my brief stint as a stay-at-home mother, when my third (now 9) was a baby. My plan was always to work, but plans sometimes change on us and I found myself home alone with a baby for days on end. For some, that’s ideal, a luxury even, but I always knew it wasn’t for me – and I discovered through that experience that it wasn’t for me in ways I hadn’t even known about. Sure, it was luxurious, but that was the problem. Embarking on that time at home with my child, I had visions of finally bustling around getting things done. If I couldn’t fulfill my professional goals, at least I would have a clean, organized house, right? Nope. I read the newspaper over long breakfasts or lunches. I would notice the piles of papers, the toys, the books that needed organizing, but there was nothing forcing me to take care of them; it was always something I could do tomorrow just as well as today.

It’s the same problem many of us have with exercising on our own. I sometimes wonder why I pay for yoga classes, rather than running through a few poses on my own or with a video – especially now, when the classes are over Zoom and there’s a limit to how much the teacher can do as far as individualized attention. But the answer is that if I didn’t have a class at a scheduled time, with others, I would never do it. To some degree, I’m paying my teacher to keep me disciplined. Because without structure – and specifically, external structure, because just putting independent exercise on my calendar also wouldn’t cut it – many of us just won’t do it. After all, we could do it later… or later…

For many of us, the recent Passover holiday offered a nice break from the monotony of Covid-19 isolation, a project to occupy our time, with a set goal that had to be met. While Passover preparations can certainly involve a lot of stress, and many toned things down this year in various ways, having something that must be done by a certain date keeps the days from dragging into each other in one monotonous blur of “whatever, later.”

One woman posted in a Jewish women’s Facebook group lamenting the end of Passover for exactly this reason. “What now?” What will give structure and purpose now to days that seem to run together? Naturally, everyone’s experience is different, but I wasn’t surprised to see that many echoed her sentiments.

Fellow Douglas Adams fans might compare this feeling to The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. But while Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged coped with his ennui by setting a goal of insulting everybody in the universe (in alphabetical order), we might prefer something more positive. And in fact, some cope by finding social action projects, coming up with ways to help others. But just like some stay at home parents are in fact wonderfully productive while others of us flounder when not subject to an external structure, sometimes just having ideas of stuff to do isn’t enough.

So for those who feel unanchored without regular work or school routines, who might even be missing the demands that Passover placed upon us, what can we do?

My answer to that Facebook post was, “There’s always Shabbat!”

Shabbat might look like a break – after all, it’s a day of rest – but really, it’s a goal. It’s a structure that can’t be put off; there is no “oh, well, I could cook for Shabbat just as well tomorrow” – because Shabbat comes when it comes. If I don’t go to yoga when the class is held, I’ve missed it – and so I make the effort to go, then. If we didn’t prepare for or observe Shabbat (in whatever way we practice) on time, we’d miss it – and so we do what we need to do, when we need to do it. Shabbat can offer rhythm and direction to every day of the week.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his beautiful work The Sabbath, argues against the idea that Shabbat allows us to rest in order to regain energy for the workweek: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are the for sake of Sabbath” (p. 14). He goes on to offer a stunning portrayal of the experience of Shabbat (what it could be, at least), but we can take the same insight to enhance our experience of the weekdays, too. If our weekdays are for the sake of Shabbat, then Shabbat provides purpose to weekdays that might in and of themselves feel, to borrow another line from Heschel, “blank, and… without character” (p.20).

Among the many interpretations of the verse “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:8), some have suggested that we make a point of thinking about Shabbat each day of the week, perhaps by doing one act of preparation daily, to “remember” the day constantly. In this approach, Shabbat enhances each day of the week with meaning and purpose – and because it comes on a set schedule, we can’t just give in to the ennui and put off those preparations. At least, not indefinitely.

Whatever our own practice of Shabbat might entail, committing to honor this day on its schedule – a schedule beyond our control to adjust in accordance with procrastination – can help keep us focused and goal-oriented, and prevent our total and complete slippage into Netflix and ice cream, if we’re so lucky, or into the haze getting our kids through Zoom class after Zoom class after…

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