Ask the Rabbi with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet 

Ask the Rabbi

Shabbat is our one sanctuary

Dear Rabbi,

As someone who’s a member of the faith only in name, I found last weekend’s Shabbat UK event a little over the top. Community-wide celebrations are welcome but keeping Shabbat is surely entirely personal and subjective. For one person it may be all about attending synagogue, for another attending a football match – while for me it’s the only day of the week I can go shopping. Surely the day of rest is entirely open to personal interpretation.

Georgina ASK THE RABBI 2

Dear Georgina,

Since you enjoy shopping you’ll appreciate that the average shopper in the average shopping mall has a range of choices that, a century ago, was beyond the dreams of kings. So blessed are the times we live in that journeys that once took months now take hours. We have better health, longer life expectancy, speed of communication and possibilities of every kind on a scale greater than any previous generation of mankind.

Yet, unexpectedly, with these modern technological changes has come a quantum leap in rates of illness, stress-related syndromes and other forms of dysfunction. How come there is such a striking disconnect between progress on the one hand and human happiness on the other? That’s a central question of our time. The answer, in part, is that one important aspect of our modern society, the all-consuming world of advertising – the great global marketing machine – is designed to create dissatisfaction and misery.

The first rule of marketing and the key secret of those who want to sell a product to consumers is: create artificial dissatisfaction in your audience. If people are happy with how they look they don’t buy cosmetics; if people are happy with their old television they won’t buy a 70-inch LCD, plasma, high definition, flat screen, Blu-ray version. If people are happy with what they’ve got, they aren’t good customer-potential – unless you first make them unhappy and then convince them that buying your product is the remedy. Advertising creates images of perfection; perfect models, perfect faces, perfect lives, perfect products. And, of course, since perfection is by definition impossible, there’s no end to how much money you can spend pursuing it. A thousand times a day, in a million different ways, calling to us from billboards, magazines, television, radio, newspapers, movies, websites and telemarketers, every single message without exception is: “You are not enough! You do not have enough! You are not happy! You have not achieved the dream!’ Don’t get me wrong.

The market economy and technological advances have allowed us to accomplish so much good – to conquer disease and famine and make life more dignified for more people than ever before. That is to be celebrated. Nevertheless, the endless loop of a seven-day-a-week consumer culture is a wonderfully efficient system for manufacturing and distributing artificial misery. It causes us to define ourselves in terms of what we lack, not in terms of what we have, which takes a heavy toll on us and our families. Shabbat is the best counterweight to market pressures.

It is when we stop work, stop acquiring and spending, and instead learn to cherish what we have, and not be diminished by what we do not. It’s our sanctuary in time when we thank God for all that we have, for our blessings, for family, for community. It is when we rediscover the real roots of happiness. When we talk about how on six days God created and on the seventh He rested, this doesn’t mean God rested from tiredness because God doesn’t get tired. It’s another level of rest. It’s entering into another space – where one interacts with the world around them in a different way.

On that day you remove yourself from your physical creative efforts – from your shopping, your football and whatever else – and you enter into a soul experience. You get in touch with your inner-self and you reconnect with those around you with whom you might have become somewhat disconnected from throughout the course of the week. We switch off the physical and turn on the spiritual side of life. We enjoy the other part of who we really are. If we didn’t have the true impact of Shabbat we risk ruining ourselves.

Apart from being on the endless treadmill, Shabbat means you are a human being not a slave. We recognise that as human beings we are created in the image of God – which means there is something refreshing about being free.

Shabbat is freedom. Shabbat says: get off the endless treadmill of consumerism and get to shul. Make space for the people and values dearest to your heart. For six days a week run on the treadmill of productivity as fast as you can. But on the seventh day, stop the desperate striving for more… and rest. I’m not going to tell you, Georgina, to try keeping all of Shabbat.

That will hopefully come in stages. But I will ask you to rise to the challenge of disconnecting from one thing of your choosing and concentrate on something more spiritual. Because in that moment of disconnect – that moment of tranquillity – you’ll come to discover the magic and the beauty of Shabbat.