The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord." (Vayikra / Leviticus 25:1, 2; ESV)
It wasn't that long ago that many communities were very different from what they are today. You might be old enough to remember when banks were only open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. Banking services were only available during those times. What might be difficult to remember is how was it even possible to get all our banking done back then. There were no banking machines or online banking. Credit cards weren't as common as they are today and there were no debit cards at all. People used cash most of the time and getting cash was only available from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. Stores were more accepting of checks and giving credit to customers back then, but I think you get the point.
The availability or lack of availability of banking services is but one example of when our societies lived life to a very different rhythm from today. Most stores were closed on Sundays. There were no 24-hour stores. Access to home entertainment was limited to what TV and radio stations offered. There were audio recordings, of course, but there were no video stores and no downloading of anything. Often when you wanted something, you had to wait.
Rest was an essential aspect of God's directives for Israel. The word Sabbath (Hebrew: shabbat) is derived from the concept of ceasing or stopping. God's people were to cease from normal labor once in a seven-day week. There were also several annual festival days that were Sabbaths. This week's Torah portion refers to sabbatical years, whereby every seventh year the land was not to be worked and the people were to eat what grew of itself.
The need to rest on certain days and years had major implications for the remaining days and years. Because work was not to be done on Sabbath days and years, everything that needed to be done could only be done on the other days and years. This was the same situation that was faced in the days of limited banking hours. If you had banking to do, you had to do it during opening hours; otherwise if wouldn't get done. Having to rest forces us to relate to non-rest times differently than if rest is just an option. If I know that all grocery stores are going to be closed on a certain day, I will make sure that I have enough food to last until the next time I can get to the store during opening hours.
For many of our communities today this is not an issue, since goods and services are available to us every day of the week, and in many cases, 24 hours a day. Rest is no longer integrated into the fabric of society as it once was. Ceasing from the non-stop activity that is so prevalent today will only happen if we are intentional about it.
One of the things that prevents us from making rest a regular part of our lives is a certain common belief that drives the non-stop pace of today's culture. That belief is that we think we really need it. We are under the conviction that to not have the current level of access to goods and services would somehow undermine our quality of life. In the same way we believe deep down in our hearts that we need all the time possible to get done whatever we think we have to get done.
But underlying God's directive to rest is a different belief. This belief is vividly illustrated through the sabbatical year referenced by this week's reading. The God who directed the people not to work the land one year in seven also promised that he would prosper them in the sixth year sufficiently so that they would have enough food to last until they were able to work the land again. This is reminiscent of Israel's time in the wilderness, when God provided two days' worth of manna on the sixth day, so that they would have enough to eat on the Sabbath when no manna would be available to gather. Rest is only really possible because God promises to take care of us. Because God takes care of us, there is no need to work incessantly. To work incessantly exposes our lack of trust in him. Once we realize that unlike what our society believes, our lives don't depend on us and our labors, but rather upon God who provides, we can truly rest.