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Mirabai Starr Headshot

Keeping the Sabbath.. Radical

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Today is Saturday. The sun has just dipped below the western mesa and the face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is about to be washed with the scarlet glow from which the range derives its poetic name. Shabbat is over and, in the tradition of my ancestors, I mourn a little. The Sabbath, they say, is a taste of "the world to come" -- a day so sweet that the Holy One, in His infinite mercy, gives us 25 hours instead of the standard 24 so that we can have a little more time to dwell in tranquility and delight.

Or Hers. Her infinite mercy. Shabbat is drenched with the Sacred Feminine. When the sun sets on Friday night and we kindle the Sabbath candles we call in the Shekhinah, the indwelling feminine presence of the Divine in the form of the Sabbath Bride. The Shekhinah has been exiled from her beloved Israel, which stands for all people. Jewish mysticism teaches that when we rise to meet the Bride in song and thanksgiving she enters us and renders us whole again. She infuses us with a second soul, an additional spiritual resource with which to navigate the holy temple in time that is Shabbat. Filled with her radiant presence we can pray more deeply, study more insightfully, enjoy food and sex and all the other blessings of creation with greater gladness.

I grew up in a family of secular Jews who were no more familiar with concept of the Shekhinah than the Christian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or the Apostle's Creed. While they reluctantly identified with Judaism as an ethnic heritage (my mother often pointed out that if we had been around during the Holocaust, the Nazis would have picked us up and thrown us into the gas chambers regardless of our belief system), my parents distrusted the entire enterprise of organized religion and raised us with a kind of free-floating orientation toward the Golden Rule. They were anti-war activists, champions of human rights, defenders of the poor and marginalized, but seemed to have forgotten that this commitment to social justice is the living core of the religion they rejected: Judaism.

In my teens, hungry for a container to hold my growing passion for the numinous, I looked to the Eastern Regions. Much later I began to reconnect with my own Jewish roots. As I gathered with my community on Friday nights to sing the ancient Shabbat prayers it did not occur to me to carry this practice into the next day. To actually "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy." Until once, around 10 years ago, when I was interviewing a Jewish artist on Shabbat and he was nestled in his studio with a cup of warm tea and a copy of the Talmud. Entering his space was not just a physical experience. There was a palpable sense of the sacred. I wanted it.

"I have always wished I could take a day a week to rest and study," I sighed.

"Oh please," he said. "People always say that to me. Just do it."

And so I do.

In case you might be thinking (as I did) that you are too busy doing to simply be, indispensable in your self-imposed responsibility of holding the fabric of the universe together, I am here to say that the intention to unplug from "ordinary time" and drop into sanctified time functions as an alchemical transmutation. Suddenly, there is enough to go around. The world morphs to accommodate us. The base substance of our overextended lives becomes the gold of pure presence. The Shekhinah makes this possible.

For me, Shabbat is a two-fold experience. It is a practice of mindfulness, in which I turn off my computer and put aside my to-do list in effort to fully show up each moment. And it is also an act of social and environmental justice, because for that one day a week of voluntary simplicity I refrain as much as possible from consuming the earth's resources and decline to participate in the machinery of commerce that causes so much suffering. I hope in this way to leave a lighter footprint on the earth.

The practice of Shabbat, then, is not only a spiritual response to the timeless commandment given to my ancestors to keep the Sabbath holy. It is a political act. I am keeping the Sabbath radical. That too is my heritage.