"The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man. God is not in things of space, but in moments of time" ― Abraham Joshua Heschel.
As the sun was setting in Jerusalem, I went to my hotel window and watched as an eclectic range of people moved up and down the busy streets. The sounds of traffic merged with church bells and religious worshipers. In Jerusalem, there are many faith traditions that seem to always be on the verge of a clash.
As I was peering out the window, I observed a zealous Orthodox Jewish man walking down the street yelling, "It's the Sabbath" as traffic passed down the busy street in a blur. Not content at just shouting his condemnation, he went out on the street and set up a metal barrier in the middle of the highway to try and force others to follow his convictions to walk and not drive on the holy day.
I watched as car after car swerved to avoid hitting the barrier. Eventually, a car accidentally smashed into it. The car lost part of its exterior but kept driving by. Now there was auto body debris and the metal barrier on the road. Some cars navigated through it easily, but a driver ran over the barrier and got rear-ended.
The driver got out, surveyed the damage amidst oncoming honking traffic and angrily threw the barrier to the side of the road. The orthodox Jewish man was long gone by this point as his "righteous" act was already completed. The blessing of the Sabbath was lost in the debris of self-righteous condemnation. Instead of experiencing the presence of God and the value of sacred rest, the Sabbath became a legalistic relic of fanaticism. The intended blessing was transformed into a curse.
In Jerusalem, there are Sabbath elevators that stop on every floor all the way to the top so Orthodox believers don't “defile” themselves. The act of lifting a finger to push a floor number is perceived as work that breaks the Sabbath. As you can imagine, getting to the desired floor on the Sabbath elevator can take a very long time. Sometimes Orthodox believers will skip the Sabbath elevator and ask Gentiles to push the floor of their choice to expedite their Sabbath experience.
While I was at breakfast on Sabbath morning, I observed as an Orthodox believer asked a visitor to tear open their bag of tea. If they were to do that themselves, it would be considered work and they didn't personally want to "break" the Sabbath in that way. On Friday night as I was visiting the Wailing Wall, I encountered a young Jewish man who asked me what time it was. I reached for my cell phone to tell him. But he quickly said, "No no no!" Using electronics on the Sabbath in his view was a violation. I had a conversation with another Orthodox believer with the hope of finding some common ground. I told him I observed the Sabbath as well. He then grilled me, asking, "Do you light fires on the Sabbath?" "Do you precut your toilet paper for the Sabbath?" I did not pass his litmus test of orthodoxy. The way that I keep the Sabbath was insufficient in his mind.
I believe the rest and blessing of the Sabbath is valuable. It's great to witness the joy and celebration of many Jewish believers as they bring in the Sabbath. It should be a delight. I resonate with what Jesus said about it in Mark 2: 27–28, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
I believe in generous orthodoxy, where beliefs are practiced according to one's own convictions without projecting them upon others. Religion at its best brings freedom and rest. At its worst, religion leads to people causing car accidents in the streets because they don't think driving on the Sabbath should be permitted. When we see the Sabbath as a legalistic burden, we exude condemnation and bondage. When we reflect the blessing of the Sabbath, we exude rest and freedom. The Sabbath is a temple in time that reminds us that God is the creator, the redeemer, and it is God who did the work so we can be free.