A comedian's sigh, the 4th Commandment, and a better New Year

Posted: Dec 28, 2006 12:01 AM
A comedian's sigh, the 4th Commandment, and a better New Year

A random, wistful comment by one of the nation’s most successful movie comedians helps illuminate the least noted of all the Ten Commandments – and should suggest some worthy New Year’s resolutions for the rest of us.

A December 10th Parade magazine profile of Ben Stiller, the star of the hugely entertaining new comedy “Night at the Museum,” describes the 41-year-old star’s quiet life with his family. “Ben now lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, actress Christine Taylor (best known as Marcia in The Brady Bunch movies), their two young children and two dogs,” writes celebrity reporter Robert Masello. “He’s been married for six and a half years and says he can hardly remember the night-owl lifestyle he used to lead. ‘One of my friends will say, ‘Hey, it’s Friday night. What are you doing?’ and I’ll have to stop and think, ‘When was the last time I got excited over a Friday night?’ I asked Christine, and she said that maybe it was in high school.’”

From a Jewish point of view, Stiller’s comment conveys a strange sense of emptiness, a tinge of sadness—since our tradition views Friday night – the Sabbath – as by far the most significant, most “exciting” night of the week. Though he often portrays Jewish characters on screen (even playing a likeable, lovesick rabbi in Leap of Faith), Stiller’s mother (the gifted comedienne Anne Meara) is Irish Catholic and he claims no particular affiliation with the religious tradition of either parent. It’s not surprising that he’d feel no particular compunction to celebrate Friday night as a special occasion with his family, but his implication that weekends at home count as boring and indistinguishable highlights the deeper need for Sabbath commitments.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments, most Americans make some effort to honor most of them – avoiding murder, theft, adultery and false witness wherever possible and even, if they think about, trying to honor parents and to stay away from covetousness. The Sabbath commandment, on the other hand (most often enumerated as number four in the Big Ten) gets scant attention: aside from Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Jews and a few other minor denominations, few of us even pause to consider what God expected of us with the instruction “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Exodus, 20:8) or, in the later restatement of the Ten Commandments: “Guard the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12).

According to Jewish tradition, the two imperative verbs “remember” (zachor in Hebrew) and “guard” (shamor) represent the two essential and contrasting aspects of Sabbath observance. “Remember” emphasizes the positive elements of the holy day – setting up a big festive meal with your best food and wine, singing songs, enjoying guests, celebrating your blessings. The instruction to “Guard,” on the other hand, tells us that in addition to these special, additional positive observances, there are also numerous negatives, things we don’t do. A Biblical Sabbath involves not only things we add to our weekday routine, but behaviors we subtract and restrict. We’re expected to cut back on our normal, daily activities – no creative work, no handling of money, no media immersion, no indulging our normal human (and God-given) impulse to alter the world that the Almighty has created (in the first six days) and given to us as a blessing.

The key purpose of both “remembering” and “guarding” (of both positive and negative observances) is to make the Sabbath “holy” –-- to consecrate the day to God, and to set it aside as different from all other days. This goes along with the core meaning of the Hebrew word “kadosh,” as well as the dictionary definitions of its English counterpart, “holy.” The first definition (in the American Heritage Dictionary) says “belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power, sacred” and the fourth definition explains “specified or set apart for a religious purpose.”

Leaving aside any religious associations, the idea of one day a week “set apart” for family and friends and home-based festivities makes all the sense in the world. With the frantic schedules we all keep today, time rushes past us in a blur with few guideposts beyond birthdays and anniversaries and the major seasonal holidays. Ben Stiller isn’t the only one who can’t remember the “last time I got excited over a Friday night.” The days melt into one another with little distinction or direction, especially on those not infrequent occasions when weekday stress and demands infect the atmosphere of the weekends. A Sabbath – a day of difference, set aside –breaks the pattern and the pressure and reminds you where you are, in the calendar and in your spiritual progress. One of the big advantages of traditional Sabbath observance is that it forces us to take note of another week that’s passed, and to emphasize the opportunities in the fresh week that’s about to begin.

I can’t claim that every Sabbath counts as memorably “exciting” in the Medved household but you certainly you know it’s different, radically different -- – with white tablecloths, glowing candles, free-flowing wine, leisurely, multi-course meals with abundant guests, and no telephone conversations or e-mail connections or business appointments or trips in cars.

The point is to gain a richer appreciation of the completeness of the glorious universe that God finished before he ceased his work of creation (“For in six days The Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all this is them, and He rested on the seventh day” Exodus 20:11) as well as a sharper sense of focus on the toil that consumes the other days of our lives (“And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God has taken you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to make the Sabbath day.” Deuteronomy 5:15).

The Fourth Commandment, in other words, belongs in the Top Ten not because it requires your attendance in church or synagogue (it doesn’t) but because it forces you to take a look at creation and your place in it. The purpose is perspective – the sort of perspective that’s only achievable when you forget about the urgent and the pressing and concentrate instead on the important and timeless.

Even those who feel no religious impulses whatever can benefit from absorbing the message of the Fourth Commandment, just as they can enrich their lives and souls from paying attention to the Fifth (to “honor your father and mother”). As Jews, we begin a Sabbath on Friday at dusk, the evening of the seventh day – just as we begin every day at sunset the night before, because the Biblical description of creation (“And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” Genesis I:5) suggests that this is the way God set up time. Whether you begin to count your holy, set-aside day at sunset, sunrise, or midnight, whether you observe it from Friday night till Saturday night, or Sunday morning through Sunday night (as most Christians do), the point is to establish an unbreakable pattern. You honor the Sabbath commandment by behaving differently even when it’s inconvenient. Maybe it doesn’t require a full 24-hour cessation of work (at least for now), but what about an iron clad, non-negotiable commitment for one celebratory, uninterruptible family meal – either Friday night, or a set time Sunday afternoon, or whenever your tradition (and preference) may dictate?

Those tens of millions of Christians who revere the authenticity of scripture could vastly enrich their understanding of the sacred patterns by which Jesus arranged his own life if they attempted a more serious experiential exploration of the Fourth Commandment. Why leave first hand knowledge of the impact and meaning of one of the God’s major instructions to humanity to a few small religious sects? A society in which Sabbath consciousness plays a greater role will be a healthier society, both for its individual members and for the collective.

The upcoming New Year’s celebration offers the perfect opportunity to set off in this positive direction. Looking ahead to the fresh calendar’s months and days provides a distinctive chance to mark off some portion of each week as holy, or set-aside – different and restorative—a Sabbath. Making a 2007 resolution to observe some form of Sabbath might pay off even more substantially than the normal promises we make to eat less and exercise more..

Maybe you’re every bit as busy as Ben Stiller (one of the hardest working actors in the business) and, like him, you wonder whether it’s even possible to get excited once again over Friday nights after draining weeks of exhaustion and accomplishment. Making an attempt to take the Fourth Commandment seriously may not provide an immediate, automatic answer to that challenge but-- as at least some of Ben’s ancestors no doubt understood-- it can’t hurt.