Three weeks ago I began a sermon series on the Genesis 1 Creation account introducing the idea of zimzum to you. Building on the Jewish mystical understanding, zimzum describes how God’s first act in creation was to become humble, and withdraw within God’s self in order to make the space for all of creation to emerge. God limited God’s self in love, took on the posture of a servant, and then spoke the universe into existence in the womb like space within God’s self. And God decided not just to create a few choice things. Rather, God imagined and spoke into being billions of stars and creatures and vegetation and finally humankind. Humanity was formed in the image and likeness of God—all of us, not just one gender or color. Last week I suggested that we most fully bear God’s image when we embrace zimzum ourselves, making space in our lives for God, others, and all of creation. We too can take on the self-giving humility and love that God did and become most fully who God created us to be as we live in community.
A sermon based on Genesis 2:1-3.
While we might believe that the pinnacle of creation was reached with the emergence of humanity, we read about one more day in the Creation account. The writer of Genesis 1 tells us that on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, seeing that all of it was very good, and then God rested from all that work. Even more, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it because God rested. We tend to read that as God needing a break like any of us after a hard week in the office. God spent the week speaking things into existence—like “Saturn, arise” on Day 3 and “You, Platypus, emerge” on Day 6—and after all of that, God was exhausted, and so on the seventh day God plopped into a heavenly recliner and grabbed the remote. God kicked back in order to veg out for a bit before starting the week all over again.
But that’s if we imagine the whole point of God’s work culminated with the creation of humanity. We certainly live like that, that the entirety of the cosmos and everything on this planet is for us. Some even suggest that this is the biblical understanding, because God stops creating with us. Except that it isn’t the end. As Prof. Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “according to [both] Jewish and Christian traditions, God created the world for his glory, out of love; and the crown of creation is not the human being; it is the sabbath.” Let me say that again: “the crown of creation is not the human being; it is the sabbath.” The sabbath isn’t just a weekend day when God chills, but it is a time when God delights in everything that was created and soaks it all in. God takes the opportunity to look on everything that God spoke into existence in that space that God made, and then enjoy it. God paused and was amazed at the goodness of all of creation.
It is not unlike the feeling we get when we finish a big project. Maybe it’s replacing the back deck that has fallen into disrepair, and we spend days figuring out a design and then begin pulling out the old boards, and putting new ones in. And then we add some brick pavers to extend the patio space and hang outdoor lights, and get a fire pit and some comfortable outdoor furniture. At the end of it, we look at it all and think, “Wow, this is really amazing, way better than I thought it would be.” Then we invite some friends and family over to enjoy an evening sharing food and drink and playing some lawn games and engaging in deep conversation. It’s for all of that that we imagined and planned and did all the work, right? It was for the time of delight and connection with others. It wasn’t just to check one more thing off of our list and when we get it done, kick back and turn on the tube to see who the Red Sox are playing at Fenway. We created and worked in order to enjoy.
And so did God. And as such, humankind isn’t the highpoint of creation, the sabbath is. The enjoyment and delight of experiencing the goodness of all that has been created and making connections and sharing love and resting from the the work that required God’s attention the six other days of that first week. All of it was for the seventh day, the day on which God rested.
Last week I mentioned how we live very anti-zimzum lives by the way we fill up spaces both the physical ones in our homes and also the blocks of time on our calendars. Our days are jam packed with work, events, errands, more work, kids’ activities, grocery shopping, still more work, social media, and entertainment. With the advent of laptops and smartphones, we no longer confine work to the hours at our place of employment. Rather we check emails late into the evening, we write proposals on the weekends, we take calls from the boss when we’re on vacation. Additionally, we check texts and news stories and how many likes that picture of our lunch got. We’re on devices all the time. I remember being told that technology would reduce the time we worked significantly, and yet reports show that it has only increased it. And, according to researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, we Americans are the worst in the world at incorporating time off into our lives because we “see rest as work’s opposite” and so we avoid it, and look down on those who do.
So when the preacher gets up and begins to talk about sabbath, we zone out and say it’s a non-starter in our lives. We do not have the time to incorporate even a few hours of rest and delight each week, never mind 24 of them. It’s just not realistic. And so we keep on keeping on, responding to emails late at night, taking calls during dinner, cramming more and more in to the space of our lives, and then every so often kick back to watch the Patriots, or binge Ted Lasso, and crash. Wash, rinse, repeat.
A decade ago, Tiffany Shlain—the inventor of the internet “Webby Awards”—embraced a weekly tech sabbath with her family. She writes about her experiences and learnings in her 2019 book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging On Day A Week. In the introduction she writes, “Before living 24/6, I was on screens 24/7. While I loved the power of having the world at my fingertips, I felt powerless against the allure of the device in my hand. Screens both consumed most of my time and made me lose track of it. It was hard to focus while jacked into this primal-urge network that was constantly pulling me away from being present. Most important, I felt like I wasn’t paying enough attention to the people I loved who were right in front of me. Then, ten years ago” she writes, “within days [of each other], my father left this world and my daughter entered it, and all I wanted to do was end the nonstop distractions and slow time down.” Tiffany, and her husband Ben, embraced the ancient concept of Shabbat—of Sabbath—in a modern way, turning off all their screens for 24 hours each week beginning on Friday evenings at sundown.
Each week, they invite people over for dinner on Friday evenings—telling them that screens aren’t invited—enjoying laughter and deep conversation, and playing musical instruments while singing off key. They go to bed filled with joy, and sleep late. On Saturdays they play games and read books and visit museums and take naps and hike and try new recipes and go to kids’ events and more all without the aid of an electronic device. It took some planning—they imagined life in the early 1980s and then printed up phone numbers, and firming up directions and telling friends and family that they wouldn’t be getting texts—but it was well worth it. She writes, “Our 24/7 society is a fire hose of media, news, emails, tweets, posts, likes, texts, pings, notifications, and buzzes. We all need a break. This weekly boundary we created around our life not only reconnected us but also enriched our time and space.”
They incorporated zimzum into their lives. And their lives flourished. They have a high school daughter, and one in middle school. Both girls have said definitively that their tech sabbath is the best part of the week—not unlike the feedback we hear from our own teens when they go 6 days without phones during our yearly mission trip. There are times when they’re bored, but that boredom often leads to creativity. We LaBelles tried a truncated version of this a week ago—beginning at 5pm on a Friday night by turning off our phones, tablets and computers. We took time to reflect on gratitudes for the week, played a round of bean bag toss, and shared a meal. We didn’t pull out our screens until the next morning—so going some 14 hours—and we enjoyed it so much we have decided to incorporate it more into our lives. For me personally, I’ve decided after reading Shlain’s book to go all in, and take a tech sabbath each week. 24 hours of an unplugged life.
Many of you desire to make this jump too. In a survey late in the summer, when asked how you could make more space in your lives, a number of respondents asked that we do a tech sabbath together, similar to the two day one we did four years ago. We know we need this time to delight and find joy in our lives. And even more, when we do take a break, we become more productive and creative. Studies show again and again and again, that a period of time away from our regular commitments helps us become better thinkers, it increases our physical health, our work production goes up, it strengthens our relationships, and we become more empathetic.
I suspect I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, or at least presume to be true. The question is, will we do it? Will we see a weekly sabbath as a gift from God to experience joy and delight in our lives? A time for rest, and making love with our spouses—a double mitzvah, or good deed, according to Jewish rabbis, one for each of you—of getting outside and enjoying the natural world, and leisurely eating a meal, and reading a book, and hushing the fever of life that so often overtakes us. All of this is the pinnacle of creation. Will we embrace a zimzum life and make space in our own lives, and truly enjoy the beauty of this world through a regular sabbath? Will we see that we are more than our work output, or the number of likes our post gets? That choice is ours, but it will not happen unless we intentionally and proactively do so. It will only come to be if we choose to make space in our lives for others, for God, and for all of creation. May it be so.