A. J. Heschel #2

Earlier, I wrote about Heschel and his idea of time vs. space, but I wanted to say a few more things on The Sabbath. Then I read this really interesting article in Haaretz about Dror Bondi, an Israeli settler that has been very influenced by Heschel, and is starting to write and teach about him. He does a good job, I think, of explaining why Heschel is not very popular in Israel. He points out that Israeli society is split along the religious and the secular divide, and Heschel does not really appeal to either of them. But, he says, both of them have something important to learn from him.

“When Heschel speaks in the name of God, the secular person says, ‘That’s not for me, that’s for the religious folks.’ And the religious say, ‘That’s not my God.’…The religious have God, the secular have reality. Heschel upsets all that…He wants to bring back God.”

Anyway, you should read it. We could certainly use some of Heschel’s influence in Israel. Wonder why? Just listen to Mr. Bondi:

“Heschel asks – What is the difference between God and a god? A Lord who is yours and not mine is a god, is idol worship. If my religious basis leads me to hatred, I should know that I am engaging in idol worship. God has to open us up to absolute caring and empathy for others.”

One of the things that really struck me in reading Heschel was when he talks about the development of the Sabbath and the halakha. The rabbis were so concerned about safeguarding the Sabbath, that they kept expanding the rules of observance. In order to make sure they didn’t even come close to breaking the law, they put a “fence” of other rules around it. Better safe than sorry.

Heschel explains, “This is what the ancient rabbis felt: the Sabbath demands all of man’s attention, the service and single-minded devotion of total love. The logic of such a conception compelled them to enlarge constantly the system of laws and rules of observance. They sought to ennoble human nature and make it worthy of being in the presence of the royal day.”[1]

This was done out of reverence and respect for the law, which is a good thing. However, when you are so single-mindedly focused on observing the law, it is easy to forget its original purpose. Kind of like saying, “Hey trees. Could you guys get out of the way. I’m trying to see the forest.”

Of course, there is something to be said for simple, unquestioning obedience. There is beauty in acknowledging that God reigns supreme, and willingly surrendering all to him. On the other hand, if we put blinders on, we should not be surprised if we are blind to certain things. Heschel writes, “The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law.”[2]

Jesus (another ancient rabbi), meant something similar when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 NIV). He was being scolded because his disciples plucked some grain out of the grain field when they were hungry. “Why are you letting them do that?” the Pharisees asked him. “Don’t you know it is the Sabbath?” Jesus came back at them with the example of David eating the showbread when he was running away from Saul (1 Sam. 21). Hard to argue with that. They were really just nitpicking here. No one is going to get that upset over a few heads of grain. Jesus knew it and they knew it, and there is some levity in their exchange.

Right after that, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man’s dried up shriveled hand. Predictably, the Pharisees had a problem with that as well. This was a little more serious. It was a miracle, and it was in front of a big crowd. Herodians were involved.

Jesus tells the Pharisees (my paraphrase), “If you are against feeding the hungry on Sabbath, and against healing the sick on the Sabbath, then you don’t have any idea what the Sabbath is about. The Sabbath was given to sustain us and to heal us. It is our food and our medicine.”

In other words (actually, in Heschel’s words), the Sabbath is “an opportunity to mend our tattered lives.”[3]

The Sabbath was never supposed to be a set of rules. It was never supposed to be something restrictive and binding. That was not God’s intention. As Heschel makes clear, the Sabbath was given as a gift, and given for our delight. Anyone who has gone for a quiet walk through Jerusalem on the Sabbath can relate to that. But above all, the Sabbath was given to set us free. The Sabbath marks our liberation; a spiritual but also physical liberation. By the law and the Sabbath, we are freed from our bondage to the material world, and also to material things:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who are acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem – how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”[4]

The timing is also significant. God gave his laws and his Sabbath to the children of Israel at the very moment of their freedom, right after he lead them out of slavery in Egypt.

“In a moment of eternity, while the taste of redemption was still fresh to the former slaves, the people of Israel were given the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. In its beginning and end, the Decalogue deals with the liberty of man. The first Word – I am the Lord thy God, who brought tee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage – reminds him that his outer liberty was given to him by God, and the tenth Word – Thou shalt not covet! – reminds him that he himself must achieve his inner liberty.”[5]

God gave his people freedom from want, but also freedom from wanting. All they had to do was take it.

In that moment, in the desert, the people of Israel were just like David, before he was king in 1 Samuel. Like David, they were on the run, being pursued by their oppressors, and turned away from every place of refuge. The story of David is told vividly, full of rich details (saliva-entangled beard anyone?). There is fear and panic in the prose. His friendship with Jonathan was so sweet it brought him to tears, and his betrayal by Saul was so bitter, he was sent reeling.

He hid anywhere he could, even among the enemy, the Philistines. He did whatever it took to survive, including pretending that he was crazy. He came to Ahimelech the priest, who instantly saw that something was wrong, and he lied to him. He lied to him in the manner of someone who is being hounded and in a hurry. He was probably dirty, flustered, and looking over his shoulder a lot. Both of them respected the showbread, and knew that it served a divine purpose. The bread was there to thank God for his life-saving provision. But they also both knew that in that moment, the showbread was needed for another purpose. It was needed to save a life.

Incidentally, this episode shook David so much, that he wrote Psalm 34 in response to it. Of course, it probably didn’t take much to shake a poem out of David (part of the reason why he was awesome), but it adds new resonance to Ps. 34:17-18 if you picture David writing it with slobber all over his beard:

“The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Not to compare myself to David, but I also wrote a short poem in response to the story in Mark:

In a world of plenty, we go against the grain.
Earthquakes and bellyaches, we feel the hunger pain.
Field yield their crops even on the Sabbath day
And we sin in secret. Keep the backbiters away.
Repentance of convenience, like those in the know
Who drink their false wine and eat their bread for show.
The Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around
In fact we are the Sabbath, and wherever we are found
There is great fruitfulness and blessings abound.
The Son of Man is seated high, above all he is crowned.

Born of men,
Without sin,
Lord of earth,
Let him in.
From his birth, healing came,
Knelling knees, growing fame.
More than words,
Evil plans,
Hardened hearts, withered hands.
Step forward,
Hard to please,
Herodians and Pharisees.

“Stretch out your hand and see that it is healed.”
This is the Sabbath and grain-field.
Freedom for the people who will dance and sing,
We’ll take it back to the days when David was king.
“Stretch out your hand and see that it is healed.”
The destroyers hide their hate but soon all will be revealed.


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1951) pg. 17.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 17.

[3] Heschel, p. 18.

[4] Heschel, p. 89.

[5] Heschel, pp. 89-90. Emphasis original.

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