Has anyone ever told you to take a deep breath: inhale, then exhale? During a stressful situation, a panic attack, or if you’re a woman in childbirth, we are constantly reminded to remember to breathe.
We need to breathe to keep living. It should come as no surprise that our earth does, too. One of the more surprising effects of the global pandemic was that early on, satellites observed the world’s air growing cleaner. We saw images of reduced pollution in places like India and China and according to the International Energy Agency, average activities on the world’s roads fell by almost 50 per cent compared to 2019. Did you find it easier to breathe during this time? Often, we pay more attention when it’s difficult to breathe, as was the case with the massive Australian bushfires in 2020 where we, as far away as New Zealand, could see and smell the smoke!
Perhaps, for our planet to experience true rest and restoration, it needs to breathe. In this article, I am inviting you to reflect on the cycle of rest and restoration. If it’s needed for the earth, then how much more do we as humans need it?
The ancient Jewish calendar had exactly that: a year of restoration. Every seventh year was called Shmita: a sabbatical for the earth. The Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament in the Bible) prescribed that for the entire year, all Jewish-owned land in Israel was not to be worked but be left fallow. Anything that grew there should be given away. Furthermore, at the end of the Shmita year, all debts were to be forgiven. The term “fallow” refers to land that is ploughed and tilled but left unseeded during the growing season. Giving the land a breather allows the soil to recover its production potential and reduce population levels of pests. Whereas the land can work well within a seven-year cycle of production and rest, I know I would struggle to work six years and only rest on the seventh!
If you are not a farmer (and less and less of us live in such direct connection to the land), this might not be so relevant, but you may still be interested in the part about forgiving debts. Of course, this would be catastrophically bad news for banks and investment firms but what about you? Think of your debt—how would your life change if it was all suddenly forgiven? According to the biblical narrative, pausing regularly restores us to wholeness in a way that was divinely intended from the very beginning. In the story, as part of the process of Creation, God dedicated an entire 24-hour period to the restoration of humanity and the world. Everything on earth was created for humanity to work six days and then for us to take the seventh to rest and breathe (Genesis 2:2, 3). Here at the beginning of the Bible, we see how for the first time, our concept of time is divided into a cycle of seven. In the biblical narrative, this seventh day is referred to as the Sabbath.
God’s design was that the seventh day would be for reflecting on the purpose of existence; a day of rest and restoration, to reset our overloaded lives to breathe and focus not on our work, but on God and His work.
Is that something only needed in ancient times? Who doesn’t need a time out from work and all the demands in our modern era? This ancient principle of a day of rest has benefits even today. It can provide a base—an anchor in a world that is difficult to navigate. It also challenges us in our overworked lives to take 24 hours for rest (and that isn’t merely a nap). In our time of information overload and urge to prove ourselves in everything we do, we would do well to remember that the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is still relevant for our world today.
The Sabbath day has, since its inauguration, been the focal point for the Jewish faith. Again and again in the biblical narrative, the Sabbath appears as a recurring theme. After the Creation story in Genesis 1 and 2, we see the Sabbath return in what we call the 10 Commandments, the teachings God gave Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1–21). They map out God’s good principles for living in relationship with creation and its Creator God. Later in Exodus 31, God affirms that the Sabbath will be a bond between God and His people.
“Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (verse 13).
From here on, Sabbath becomes a commitment. This commitment doesn’t change throughout the Bible, just as God doesn’t remove the benefits of the Sabbath day. These 24 hours reset the order of Creation. In them, we recognise God’s divinity and humanity’s limitations. This time taken out of our work-life routine gives our body and mind the breathing space to reset and be restored in our relationships with one another and with God.
Samson Hirsch says that the Sabbath was given to humanity “In order that he should not grow overweening [egotistical] in his dominion” of God’s Creation. On the day of rest, “He must, as it were, return the borrowed world to its Divine Owner in order to realise that it is but lent to him.”
It might have been well for our Jewish brothers and sisters to celebrate the Sabbath, but how is this relevant for us today?
When Jesus Christ came onto the scene in the first century, He invited His followers to embrace the fullness of the Sabbath. The Gospels (the four biographies of Jesus’ life you can find at the beginning of the New Testament) show how Jesus clearly followed the traditions of Judaism, including the Sabbath. Yet we also read in the Gospels how this day of rest had somehow become a list of “dos” and “don’ts”. Jesus reminds us of the true purpose of the Sabbath in Mark 2:27, 28, when He says “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
Jesus here is moving the Sabbath beyond man-made rules and regulations and shows that the intention behind the Sabbath is about our relationship with Creation, humanity and God. Setting aside a day in our week makes sense, not just from a restorative viewpoint but also from the perspective of building relationships.
In a society where we strive toward achievements, possessions, performance and busying ourselves in work to simply get more, Sabbath can become an antidote to the pressure, if we embrace it. To simply be in the presence of our Creator God, letting us breathe, enjoying family and community is cleansing. “Your body, soul, and family require rejuvenation,” claims Jewish educator Fred Claar.
The restoration of our environment and innermost being moves us to express gratitude for this 24-hour period and leads us to a space of wholeness and gratitude. A pause in our packed lives has the potential to transform us, our community and our environment. In as much as Creation needs to breathe to experience restoration, God in His divine wisdom knew that we needed a Sabbath space to reconnect and restore.
For all Creation and humanity in particular to breathe.
The biblical origins narrative tells of a God who breathed His breath of life into Adam to create humanity. Then God gave the seventh day for all Creation to rest, breathe and be transformed. To rest in God is to reconnect with the very Breath of Life itself.
Kirsten Lundqvist is a Danish pastor who currently resides in Wellington, New Zealand. She enjoys ministering in both secular and Jewish contexts
Do you need a Sabbath rest or want to know more about the Sabbath? Enroll in The Sabbath Secret for free by clicking here today.