Two strong men once faced off in a tree-chopping contest. They were tasked with chopping down as many trees in a forest as they could in a day. The winner would be rewarded with a small fortune.
From morning till noon, both men steadily chopped and chopped. By noon they were neck and neck, but then one man took a break and stopped chopping. The other man saw this and thought: “The lazy fellow’s taken a break for lunch. Now is my chance to get ahead of him.” A while later the man got back to work. As the day continued, the “lazy” one chopped down more trees than his competitor. When sundown came, the man who had taken the break had chopped almost twice as many trees as the other man, who was drenched in sweat and exhausted.
“How did you beat me?” he asked, puzzled. “You were lazier than I and even took a lunch break.”
“I did take a break,” said the other man. “But it was not for lunch. It was to sharpen my axe.”
We are like that exhausted fellow. Life frustrates us, but instead of improving ourselves, we keep struggling with a blunt ax. Shabbat asks us to stop and sharpen the ax, to preserve and enhance the greatest asset you have: you.
The Torah commands in this week’s portion, “There are six days for work but the seventh day is Shabbat, pure rest, holy to God” (Exodus 31:17).
That means having a balanced program for rest and self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Physical: eating beneficial Shabbat meals, walking and resting.
Social: making meaningful connections with others in synagogue or at home.
Mental: learning, listening to the weekly Torah reading and teaching.
Spiritual: expanding yourself through meditation, prayer, song or appreciation for God’s natural world.
As you renew yourself on Shabbat in each of these four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpening the axe keeps you fresh so you can continue to grow on the other six days of the week. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you. Without this renewal, you run the risk of the body becoming weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive — turning into a dull axe.
On Jan. 1, 2000, in honor of the new millennium, the New York Times attempted to predict what its edition of Jan. 1, 2100, would look like by running an imaginary front page. There were articles about robots demanding equal rights and a welcome to the 51st state: Cuba. It was a world where everything was different from our own — except one item: At the bottom of the front page was a brief advertisement:
“Jewish women and girls light Shabbat candles today 18 minutes before sunset. In New York City 4:39 p.m.”
No one paid for the ad. It was put in by the Times. The production manager, an Irish Catholic, was asked about this curious entry. He said, “We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100 … but of one thing you can be certain: In the year 2100, Jewish women will be lighting Shabbos candles.”
The Times got it right. Jews will still be celebrating Shabbat in 2100. Among the robots, we will continue to recognize its profound spiritual value, the power it has to center us, and to remind us of who we are and what matters. That’s the power of this majestic day. It brings freedom into our lives, revitalizing our minds, hearts and souls. When God gave the Jewish people the commandment to keep the Shabbat, He transformed a group of slaves into a people of eternity.