Recently, I heard a talk on stress management where the lecturer, holding a glass of water, asked: “How heavy is this glass of water?”
The audience called out answers that ranged from eight to 24 ounces.
The lecturer replied, “Actually, from my perspective, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how long I try to hold this glass. For example, if I hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, I may need to call an ambulance.”
The point he wanted to make was simple: The weight was the same but the longer he held the glass, the heavier it became.
And so it goes with life — and the burdens, stresses, disappointments and angst that we carry within us. If we carry our burdens all the time, if we never let go of our guilt, shame, regret or sorrow, if we never take a break from the demands of work, family and life, we can become incapacitated by the very act of carrying their psychological weight. And, just as with the glass of water, if we don’t put them down for a while, we may actually make ourselves sick.
The wisdom of Jewish texts and teachings remains relevant today because it speaks to us in the “trenches” of life —where we work, live, and muddle through our daily challenges — not just in the synagogue or house of worship. A great example of this lies in the how Judaism teaches us to be healthier human beings because it requires us to “put down our burdens” every week. This letting go so that we can restore our inner balance is called the Sabbath (or Shabbat in Hebrew).
Whatever troubles we are carrying, whatever work remains undone from the prior week, whatever problems of the heart are unresolved, Shabbat beckons us to “let those burdens go!” For 24 hours, we are encouraged to put them away and sit back, relax and enjoy the reprieve. Like a mini-vacation of the soul, Shabbat gives us time and space to relax and renew ourselves free from the burdens we carry within us all week long.
Shabbat is intended to be a weekly reminder of how rich our lives can be when we relinquish control over the things we dominate and that dominate us during the week.
It is an invitation to enjoy time with family and friends, to study and pray with the community and to finally read the last chapter of the book we put down weeks ago for lack of time. It establishes a specific time each week during which we are entitled and required to stop, reflect and relax rather than to do, change and create.
The Jewish calendar gives us continuing opportunities to reflect upon and renew ourselves. We have annual reminders like Rosh Hashanah, which presents us with the opportunity each year to engage in meaningful questioning and introspection that can become the catalyst for personal and spiritual renewal. And at Passover, when we retell the story of the Jewish Exodus from slavery to freedom, we are inspired to renew our commitment — to our faith, tradition, and each other — to live a life of purpose, dignity and self-determination. While Passover reminds us what it means to “let my people go,” Shabbat reminds us what it feels like when we let our burdens go.
There have been times in life, especially as I have gotten older, when I have struggled to maintain perspective. The pain and angst I have experienced from living in the trenches of love, loss and life has been overwhelming at times. But somehow, I have found an island of calm in knowing that Shabbat is just a few days away and with it, the time I need to regain my emotional and spiritual footing in an uncertain, turbulent world.
And even though I know that I will have to pick up my burdens again when Shabbat is over, I am always more refreshed and better able to carry them after having laid them down for a while.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.