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End of Sabbath

'The Siesta (After Millet' by Vincent Van Gogh

For many of us who work in education - be that school, college or university - we are blessed with long summer breaks. The same it seems also goes for many church ministers, our teachers in the temples.

I try to view my summer breaks as not simply an opportunity for sunny holidays but also as a time of sabbatical. The idea of a sabbatical quite obviously derives from the word 'sabbath', with roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

We read in Genesis how God rested on the seventh day:

"By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work..."

Then we read in Exodus clear instructions for Jews in their treatment of the land, themselves and others every seventh year:

"For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed."

Furthermore, we read in Leviticus that every seventh cycle of this pattern should become a 'jubilee year' in which bonds of slavery are broken and longstanding debts are forgiven. From this we can suppose the practice of sabbath is as much about 'letting go' psychologically of past grievances and regrets as it is about physical relinquishment of activity (or legalities).

And from there, although the instruction is less direct, we find in the New Testament countless examples of the practice of sabbath - both formally in the keeping of the seventh day, as the Jewish disciples of Jesus were accustomed to, and more spontaneously such as when Jesus retreats from the crowds after a busy period of ministry (i.e. Luke 5:16).  We also read in the Gospels that on the seventh day both Jesus and Paul routinely took to the synagogue to read scripture and reason with others. (i.e. Mark 1:21, Acts 18:4) From this, we can suppose the practice of sabbath is a designated time for religious / spiritual learning - a space to garner inspiration for the journey ahead.

One of the big disputes Jesus had with the Jewish authorities was whether it was right to work towards healing during a time of sabbath - with Jesus challenging the cold and legalistic view held by the Pharisees that all work was proscribed. The story goes as follows:

"One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!” Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

But the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” 

But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in subjugation by Satan for eighteen years. Isn't it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” 

This shamed his enemies, but all the people rejoiced at the wonderful things he did." (Luke 13:10 - 17)

This story is found within all four gospels giving it great significance. It is clear, to Jesus and his disciples at least, that the sabbath is a time for active healing of the self and of others - this healing may well be represented in Biblical stories as physical, but as with so much of the Christian narrative, there is this deeper personal and communal dimension to be found beneath the screenplay. For example, the daughter of Abraham, although described as being bent-double and unable to stand up straight, appears to be trapped in some kind of spiritual crisis to the reader who approaches the story from a non-literal perspective - hence the phrase, 'held in subjugation by Satan'.

Finally, it is worth noting the 'pentecost event' is said to have occurred during a time of sabbath, namely the Jewish Feast of Weeks (also known as 'Shavuot') which marked the first harvest in the land of ancient Israel / Palestine. Clearly, this tying in of the story of Pentecost with Shavuot is rich in symbolism, with multiple layers of meaning - however, one simple thing we can draw from it is the idea of new fruit appearing during times of sabbath, in terms of new understanding, purpose and vision.

Although the summer holidays are said to originate in an old custom of allowing children time to help with the harvest, I think a summer sabbatical remains an important time for all of the reasons described above - whether we are Jews, Christians or otherwise. The job of trying to guide and mentor other human beings is often an exhausting one in terms of what we might call our 'social-emotional batteries' - particularly so if those other human beings are not readily enthusiastic about being taught! So it follows, practically speaking, that a time of rest - a kind of retreat and solitude from the intense, institutionalised environments of education - is naturally needed for all parties.

But we must also understand the job of an educator is not simply a job - it is a profession in the truest sense, a call to dedicate your talents primarily for the betterment of others rather than personal profit. And to truly do this, you have to constantly challenge yourself, you have to engage in a struggle to gain (and regain) greater clarity over your direction and critically evaluate your methodology in getting there.

The summer holidays allow for this reflective process to take place - whether we like it or not. And for many of us, the truth is it is not necessarily an easygoing experience. It is certainly not always a case of laying on a beach enjoying a bit of 'blue sky thinking' - it involves allowing hard questions to surface. Hard questions about what we are doing, why and to what end - hard questions that are usually crowded out amongst the hustle and bustle of the working day.

As the sabbatical season now comes towards a close for many of us and we return with fresh hopes for the academic year ahead, I hope this summer has been constructive and proves over the next academic year to be enduringly fruitful for all educators and those in their keeping.

[I should add, as a side note, that I believe designated times for sabbath are needed by all people - and it concerns me that British society is increasingly becoming a '24 hour, 7 days-a-week society' in the relentless pursuit of profit, particularly the implications this has for those on lower wages and casual contracts.]

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