Technical civilization is the product of labor, of man’s exertion of power for the sake of gain, for the sake of producing goods. It begins when man, dissatisfied with what is available in nature, becomes engaged in a struggle with the forces of nature in order to enhance his safety and to increase his comfort. To use the language of the Bible, the task of civilization is to subdue the earth, to have dominion over the beast.
How proud we are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce. Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats. In spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we have conquered have conquered us.
Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day of which we learn the art of surpassing civilization…
To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have so easily been turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
Reflection – This will be my last day with Heschel’s wonderful book. It is tempting to just go on quoting from a book like this—his writing is so lyrical, his insights so deep, his style so simple and accessible. But other subjects beckon (there’s a certain liturgical season starting next week that I mean to write about…).
Meanwhile on this day which is the day of the Jewish Sabbath, we have this most beautiful reflection on both the goodness of labor and civilization and its limits, its need to be surpassed. Heschel’s warnings on this point remind me of the Jewish legend of the golem, a sort of Frankenstein’s monster legend.
I am foggy on the details, and am writing this where I have no way to look it up. I believe the golem is created as a sort of perfect servant of its master, a being of great strength and power. As an act of piety the man who makes it carves the Hebrew word emet—truth—on its forehead. But the golem takes the chisel from him and blots out the first letter of the emet, the aleph, turning the word into met—death.
This symbolic legend contains the deep and tragic truth of humanity. We exert our minds and bodies mightily and marvelously in the work of creation, outdo each other and past generations in devising new and more powerful technological artifacts, unleash ever more and more the powers latent in nature and harness them to do our bidding.
All of this is truth, the delving deep into and extracting out of the true energies and true natures of created beings. But in his riches, man lacks wisdom, he is like the beasts that are destroyed (Ps 49:12). We are the eternal sorcerer’s apprentice, unleashing powers we only partially understand and cannot control. We are the eternal dwarves of Moria, delving too deeply into the crust of the earth for wealth, and unleashing terrible evils we did not know were there. We are the toddlers of the universe, smart and strong enough to climb up on the countertops and cupboards of the cosmic kitchen, but foolish enough to pull down whole shelves of dishes and cups, pots and pans upon our heads.
We make a mess. It is not that we should reject technological civilization (it would be mighty hypocritical and absurd for me to write anything like that on my MacBook Pro, eh?). But we should keep the Sabbath.
In other words (since we are not Jewish, most of us, and so I am not speaking literally, quite), we should find time and space and priority in our lives for contemplation. By this, I do not mean mystical prayer, although that would be nice, if you can get there. Rather, though, we need to enter a relationship with creation, which means a relationship ultimately with creation’s God, that is not defined by domination and control, mastery and might. We need to receive and rest in what is, rather than perpetually see what is not and throw our whole being and its powers into productivity and economic labor.
Right this minute, it is snowing. Again. Sigh. It is, actually, a rather dull grey day, but the trees outside my window, cedar and birch, are waiting for spring, as are we all. And they are lovely in their bare expectancy, their patient endurance through the long cold winter.
If I see the fall of snow strictly in terms of snow removal, and the trees as simply future firewood and am utterly indifferent to what these things are in themselves, right now, I miss so very much of what is, what is good, what is beautiful in the world. This is why the Sabbath is so key, however we in our personal religious lives take it in and live it out.
We must, we simply must, echo the declaration of God, that creation is good, and that it is so good that we can and indeed we must rest in that goodness, simply be in it, find a life and a way that is beyond and above doing and making, come into a space of beholding and praising, come to know in our contemplation of what is, the contemplation of One Who Is, and in that contemplation come to the deep peace and happiness we ourselves are made for, the what is of our own personal being, an identity and a life that is not defined by our production and economic worth, but by the love of our Father in heaven.