Sabbath (noun) 1. any special day of prayer or rest; a period of rest, sometimes for religious observance. From the Hebrew shabath, meaning intermission, repose, to cease, to put away, to still
--Random House Dictionary and Strong’s Bible Concordance
What could be more important in the life of a teenager than the chance to play for the state basketball championship of Texas? Texas: where youth sports are larger than life and where Friday night lights have blazed away for generations. The Lone Star State: where the glory of high school athletics is the heart of civic life. What could possibly be a higher priority than “the game”? Homework or family time or a job? Maybe another student group commitment, a play or a choir concert? Or how about religion and the practice of faith?
That’s the priority for a group of Orthodox Jewish high school boys who play basketball at The Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston. This Jewish day school won its regional championship in late February and was all set to compete in the state semifinals. Problem is that the game was scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Friday night, right in the middle of the Sabbath. Observant Jews honor their Sabbath each week by eschewing all work and activity for twenty four hours, Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. That sacred time is reserved for a family sabbath meal, prayers, worship at temple and rest. This ancient discipline comes from the first of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work….the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20)
As of last week, the group which governs the state championships, The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, refused Beren’s appeal to change the game time. This despite the fact that several other basketball teams in the tournament graciously offered to change their scheduled game times. Hard choices. What does matter more? Athletic competition or religious observance? Going to a house of worship or the local playing field? Bending your knees in the pews or on the offensive line? The sabbath or the secular?
There once was a time when the wider culture made accommodations for folks to practice their faith and claim a sabbath. It was called “Sunday”. Granted that one day favored just Christians, not Jews like those boys in Texas, or other faiths or folks of no faith. But this principle of a sabbath is one to reconsider.
Think of it. To intentionally set aside just one day a week, one special time, and one sacred space of twenty four hours for every one, the faithful and the non-faithful alike. To go to church or temple. To sleep in. To peruse the newspaper. To share a family brunch. To take a long walk. To slow down. To read. To do a hobby or favorite pastime. No stores, save a very few, open. Relatives visiting with each other or the neighbors. The briefcase set by the front door on Friday night and not touched again until Monday morning. Rest. Sabbath.
Now I’m tempted to get all nostalgic, even preachy and call for a return to a culture wide day of rest, but that’s just not going to happen. In 2012 America is a land of many faiths and no faith. More telling, Sundays as sabbath have been swept away in a societal shift of priorities. We are now hooked on 24/7 activity. We often work in jobs through the weekends with cell phones and email keeping us tethered. We expect to be able to shop wherever and whenever we want, no matter what the time or day. What once was free time for kids is now scheduled time. Families spend hours and hours in the car, driving from practice to game to scrimmage to home then back out again. We bank online in our pajamas and go to CVS at 3 in the morning for cough drops and ice cream. There’s no room for sabbath in this world unless…we choose to claim it. We decide that a sabbath, spiritual or secular, matters. That we need it.
Tough choices. Folks of faith like those kids and families in Texas are forced to make hard decisions about what will take priority in their own lives and the life of their families. They are forced to juggle the competing priorities of making God a part of life while also trying to participate in this busy world, including the joy that is youth sports. Modern life is sure complicated.
Yet still this sabbath ideal tugs at us. To get some rest. To have time to be with our loved ones and be with our God. To carve out just one day, a holy time when we take a break and slow down. Not easy when the world never ever seems to just shut off, or take a time out, or chill, or stop. The crammed family calendar is the new cross to bear. How can we do everything? Church and temple and sports and activities and work and play and rest and family? WE MUST DO IT ALL!
The truth is we cannot do it all and to imagine we can is foolish or arrogant or both. Time is limited. A day is only twenty four hours long and in each of those days, we choose our priorities. What matters the most for ourselves and our loved ones. What we will do and what we will not do. The myth of modern life may try to sing its siren song of more, more, more, preaching that busyness always equals meaning, purpose, and happiness. But at some point that manic machine must break down. We all need sabbath. Even God rested after six days of work.
So here’s a shout out to those boys on that team in Texas and the school administration and parents who backed them up. They bucked the system. They chose to make their sabbath a life priority.
To me, that is a win every time.