Thou Shalt Remember

Sickness unto Rest

There’s a certain memory I do not want to remember. As you can see from my distancing language, I don’t even want to call it mine. But lately it keeps coming back into my mind—interrupting my thoughts at odd moments, and filling my attention when I happen to slow down.

The phrase that just came to my mind is “brought low.” Knowing what I don’t want to remember, I can see why.

Before I lived in New York, the words “brought low” would have had a ring of quaintness to them. I might have said the phrase in a kind of affectation, a blandly dramatic gesture that made vague fun of my self-centeredness. But at twenty-seven, with a masters degree in old books and the paginal equivalent of two theses to my name proving useless to the job market and more and more fruitless to myself; with so many scores of books and names and thoughts that formed the often shaking, sometimes crumbling sky-castled future I had built up in my mind; with two-households’ worth of student debt and a wage below a living; with viral tonsillitis in my throat and rancidity in my heart, I was, quite literally, brought low.

It was a sunny afternoon, and I was miserable. I was taking a quick break—really a panting respite—between my two jobs at the time. I had just entered “the workforce” and had found—I thought quite luckily, at first—a job teaching mornings in a Gifted and Talented third-grade classroom at a “High Achieving” New York public school. To attempt something approaching “supplemental,” I also worked afternoons as a mentor/“manny”-type to a preschool-age boy. Being my first year working in the school system, I quickly felt as if I was toiling beyond-time and falling sick semi-monthly. But as anyone who has worked multiple part-time jobs knows, sickness in such cases can be a kind of curse: you cannot rest for long, because you do not have the “time” (i.e. money) allotted to you; at a certain point, you may have to tax your health and simply shoulder through it, or else you face the extra tax and insupportable burden of empty hours and a shortened paycheck. What I had been struggling to carry, through too-many weeks of fever and sweat and pus and pangs, had turned my time into a desperate thirst for numbers. I drained my well-being to fill my timesheet.

I came down with tonsillitis in the late winter, and had it in some stinging form all through the summer. At first I was certain it was strep throat, or some other bacterial plight—a prospect like a death-sentence to callow, frightened me, who found himself in-between providers (my parents and the employer I was coming to expect less and less on the horizon). I remember going to work with a burning fever and a swelling throat whose aches became alarms. As the day went on, my face began to fume coldly and my pulse almost throttled the veins in my throat. I remember nearly passing out while trying to lead a troop of thirty lively children in two lines down the hallway. I walked with the tiles spinning by me, with each wrenching reflex testing and re-testing the undeniable infection. There was something very wrong with the way I swallowed now: the smarting insides of my throat began to clench themselves together, without effort on my part; they separated slowly, sticking to each other stubbornly like pieces of raw meat on wax paper.

But still I finished out the morning. And then, after an hour lying down in a pew in a nearby church (where my wife worked at the time), I went on to Job #2. I didn’t get home that day until 6:45pm.

Over the next week, the fever receded into a besetting heat that assailed me most when I was trying to sleep. My tonsils, meanwhile, continued to swell. The one on my right—always the larger—distended to the size of a table tennis ball. You could see it stretching the skin underneath my jaw. The only benefit of winter then was that my coat could cover up that Thing. But my scarf and coat could not hide the inflammation and agonizing rest.

Over the next few weeks, I went to work on little more than four hours of restive sleep. The swelling abated, but only slowly. The pain, even more slowly. There was a constant couple of talons clinging to my right tonsil as I tried to speak a clear and catching word to my rowdy students. What were maybe the worst things to come out of this malady—even worse than the threat it posed to my income—were the difficulty of getting it and myself taken care of and the proceeding uncertainty of just what it was and when and how it would get better.

It was only after the first week that I began to feel the meager relief that it wasn’t strep throat. It was only after the first month that I become convinced it wasn’t something bacterial, and would not require the hardship of purchasing antibiotics. It was only after I got my first job in a progressive[1] independent school, with sick days and health insurance, that I felt fully recovered—several months later.

But for those several months I was brought low. Many times I found myself seeking rest in the middle of the city, in broad daylight, in the midst of complete strangers. Many times my body was so wretched or so weary that I forgot to care for my dignity.

I remember wrapping my arms around the pole of the 1 line, clinging and leaning as much of my body as I could without falling over. To the riders around me, I probably looked entirely tender toward it, resting the side of my head on the tall straight metal as if wistfully wishing it had a cold shoulder.[2]

Yes, I remember a lot from this time. But the memory that keeps coming back to me, which brought this whole febrile rumination up, has so much to do with a place within this time. My memory occurs in a place that “everybody” knows, a place with such cinematic and stereotypical “New York, New York” significance to it that it stands as a Mecca of “good times” for literal millions of visitors. It is the capital of American urban recreation, a place where people from thousands of other cities go to take their pictures and already begin to remember that they were there too, successfully achieving their fun like the many generations that came before them.

That is, I was “brought low” in Central Park.

In the memory that keeps coming back to me, I am laying myself down below a tree in Central Park, at the western edge of the Sheep Meadow, to see if I can actually sleep. It’s a beautiful, slightly too-hot late spring day (a first sign of summer) and the lawns are officially full of people (another sign). Shining bodies are everywhere reclining or lying out. I pass all sorts of postures of full-health. I shuffle between a group of sunbathers in my school clothes. I see a couple of young men tossing a Frisbee in free defiance of my illness. I find what seems the last shaded tree not being used for idyllic college picnicking and lower myself down to the ground. I crawl clumsily around on my back to get comfortable on the scratchy grass and the bumpy earth, struggling with the muscles that lately always seem sodden and sagging with soreness. I finally lie still beneath the shimmering, dappling sun and shadow, the green light of the leaves and the glaring white of the shooting sun, the faintly flickering wind. I close my eyes, and feel the heat radiating up in me to meet the warmth coming down from above. Somewhere in that melding, and somewhere in that formless light, I fall asleep.

I actually rested for a good forty minutes, maybe even an hour. As I have mentioned, I had never before rested, really rested, in public or in nature. But now I had let go of myself out in the open—as out in the open as you can get in the middle of Manhattan. I was brought to it. I didn’t choose it. I accepted it.

There’s not much more to this memory. I eventually got up and went on to my next job. I continued at times to feel miserable. But what it is connected to, like a leaf on a branch on a trunk on its roots, is something much larger in meaning than I initially thought. It’s something bigger than my own personal pain, even bigger than my sense of smallness, that shame that has tried to keep that time and that place at bay.

Rest. That’s the word I have for it from my native language. But there’s a bigger word that I’ve known since childhood, and learned to be even larger in that time before I fell into the workforce. Sabbath.

My Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon defines שבת as a verb that means to “cease, desist, rest.” This definition may seem pretty prosaic, but as with almost all exegesis, context is everything. We have to look at place and time.

With שבת we have to go back to the beginning. The very beginning. God created the world in six days. We may know this language all too well. It is prosaic to us. On the seventh day God rested. We may know this too. We might even have a mundane sense of obligation clinging to these words. And then God called the seventh day “holy.” The word may echo like an empty church—that is, not at all: it may have lost its cause to make any sound to us.

“One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?

“It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.”[3]

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God’s hands this seemingly simple ceasing, this desisting and resting from any action, is really an entire “atmosphere,”[4] the fulfillment of creation: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”[5] In the words of the Evening Service for the Sabbath, it is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.” In the words of the Rabbis, it is “last in creation, first in intention.”[6]

And so there is no object to God’s verb—it is intransitive, open, spacious—because at last nothing is in need of doing, nothing is in need of change. The given has been set apart. Hereness sits in otherness. On the seventh day God sabbaths, and everything rests in subjecthood.

To people like Heschel, this idea of “rest” has stood in the starkest contrast to modern civilization. It is practically alien to it.

“Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence. . . .

“Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[7]

In the end, the realm of space is untenable, no matter how opulent or sturdy we have made it for ourselves. Even knowledge, the basic material of memory known as “facts,” can sift away through time’s fingers. “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time.”[8]

Thus, the word שבת is followed by the word זקר. “Remember the day of rest, to make it holy [literally, to holy it].”[9] Rest is followed by remember—a first and foremost mental setting-apart.

Remember the insights, remember the presence, remember that sudden realization you have had at times, if only at odd moments, that life is strangely inter-connected, like “an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other.”[10] Remember when you rested and felt set-apart from all your woes.

In that time in Central Park I did indeed feel set-apart from sickness and worry. Any bitterness and fatigue melded into that warm, bright sleep—what D.H. Lawrence, in his losing struggle with tuberculosis, called “good oblivion.”[11] At this moment, at least, I was free from spraining confines of my body. But the sanguine irony to my memory is the power of “the place where the act came to pass.” That place of history—and therefore human time-building—known as Central Park. I would not have had that rest, that overweening sense of set-apart-ness, had the place itself not been set apart before me. Even set apart for such as me.

Pastoral Care

The history of Central Park is a fascinating one. To me, one of the most important and overlooked facets of the park is its design—the ideas and intentions behind its very existence. When the City of New York, “after years of public clamor,” set aside the land to make a park, American society of 1853 knew little about what to do next.[12] Even in the world’s major capitals, there were so few city parks to look to for models—many, if not most, of them were country lots that had followed a desultory path from private property to public space[13]—and the very idea of national parks was still in germination.[14] We the people of the twenty-first century take the field of “parks and recreation” very much for granted. For 19th century America, however, it was the collaborative vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and the ongoing articulation and propounding of that vision by Olmsted in later years, that really helped to make the Park—and so much of what we now generally associate with that word—the place of rest and recreation we all know today.

By the mid-nineteenth century there was a growing, already widespread sense that enormity stood on the city’s horizon. Not just the physical landscape—which was ostensibly rising and spreading—but also the pace and intensity of modern urban life were mounting. In what Olmsted termed “a common, spontaneous movement of that sort which we conveniently refer to the ‘Genius of Civilization,’”[15] public insistence on a park helped to drive the legislation that would set aside over 750 acres of land, squarely in the middle of Manhattan, squarely for the purposes of the public.[16] But just what these purposes were, or what they might look like, found some of their clearest expression in the work and words of one person.

“[A]s what is well designed to nourish the body and enliven the spirits through the stomach makes a dinner a dinner, so what is well designed to recreate the mind from urban oppressions through the eye, makes the Park the Park.”[17]

For Olmsted, the word “recreation” had a truly fortifying reality, and with the park he meant to help provide a space in which the beleaguered and downtrodden city-dwellers could nourish their bodies and enliven their spirits. His plan, with Vaux, was to create a wide, hilly field or “greensward” that would emulate for urban park-goers the experience of being in a pastureland. The notion may strike some of us as quaintly Victorian—which at times it was—but the intention was both practical and relevant. For many Americans those days, a farm was not unfamiliar. It wasn’t bound up in clichés of saccharine postcards and overly mannered TV shows. The sight of green, rolling hills and lonely stands of trees—and sheep, actual, live sheep—was more than an effective symbol for the idyllic: it was sight of memory for times of real, lived rest, if not personally for the park-goers themselves, than almost certainly for many of their relatives.

For Olmsted, the park was a kind of sanctuary-art-work. Much of his writings about just what the pastoral scene should do sound more like Ruskin’s aesthetics, and sometimes like practical theology. Always, “the Central Park” should be giving, affording, suggesting:

It should afford “the imagination, looking into the soft commingling lights and shadows and fading tints of color of the background [the] encouragement to extend these purely rural conditions indefinitely.”

It should, through “contrast and variety of scene,” give “the constant suggestion to the imagination of an unlimited range of rural conditions.”

It should provide “an agreeable suggestion . . . to the imagination of freedom, and of interest beyond the objects which at any moment meet the eye.”

It should “affect the imagination with a sense of mystery.”[18]

This was, to Olmsted, far better than viewing a painting: with their whole bodies the people could go from the crowded, over-towering city to finding themselves suddenly unbounded, out in the open air and sunlight. The park would give the people perspectival liberty.

Indeed, even more than the practical recreational uses of the park, Olmsted believed in a restorative, ethical purpose behind the Park. There is a theodicy at the heart of all the parks-movement that found its first great expositor in Olmsted.

“[T]o all economic advantages we have gained through modern discoveries and inventions, the great enlargement of the field of commerce, the growth of towns and the spread of town ways of living, there are some grave drawbacks. We may yet understand them so imperfectly that we but little more than veil our ignorance when we talk of what is lost and suffered under the name of ‘vital exhaustion,’ ‘nervous irritation’ and ‘constitutional depression’; when we speak of tendencies, through excessive materialism, to loss of faith and lowness of spirit, by which life is made, to some, questionably worth living. But that there are actual drawbacks which we thus vaguely indicate to the prosperity of large towns, and that they deduct much from the wealth-producing and tax-bearing capacity of their people, as well as from the wealth-enjoying capacity, there can be no doubt.”[19]

With all of the exalted innovations lowering the common—all those advancing tools making people instruments for their cold, fixed mechanical progress, and thus creating creatures of perpetual motion; with all of the sky-rocketing profit carrying the wealthy away and leaving workers in the slums; for all of the ownership owning people—this Park was meant to serve as a socially and personally ameliorating place. In that central shared pastureland the people could find themselves leveled with one another. And “in the soft, smooth, tranquil surface of the turf,” each individual could find “immunity from the bustling, violent and wearing influences which act upon the surfaces of the streets.”[20]

Olmsted’s Park was meant to be more than just a temporary outing from the normal. It was meant to be a reformation of the normal. The Park would provide the people with an atmosphere of completion: there would be no sign of work in sight, no need to compete with each other, and no need to own anything, because it all belonged to everyone; their place in the democracy would be enough; they could rest easy in their civil right to be, simply be, in this place. Such a place was meant to create, if only for a time, a renewed society, a kind of sabbath civilization.

Thou Shalt Remember

If anyone knew the nightmarish extents that “civilization” could go to, it was Abraham Joshua Heschel. If anyone knew the terrors that human beings could make of the human body, the mutilations they were capable of toward that space we inhabit through created time, certainly Heschel knew. After surviving several years in Hitler’s Germany, from which he was deported in the middle of the night, Heschel managed to escape his birthplace of Warsaw just six weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland. He once described himself as “a brand plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death.”[21] In every book he wrote, he remembered.

Which is why his views on the Sabbath are so radical, revolutionary—that is, restorative—from a socio-historical point of view (among others):

“What is the Sabbath? A reminder of every man’s royalty; an abolition of the distinction of master and slave, rich and poor, success and failure. To celebrate the Sabbath is to experience one’s ultimate independence of civilization and society, of achievement and anxiety. The Sabbath is an embodiment of the belief that all men are equal and that equality of men means the nobility of men. The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince.”[22]

Heschel sought with great urgency to help bring people back to the seventh day of creation. Through a Sabbath-driven way of living, the people can remember their nobility–they can be brought high. Being a man of heroic praxis, he strove tirelessly not only in his scholarship, but also in his activism to live out the notion that time is “eternity in disguise”[23] and thus populated by the divine.

And Heschel was not the only one: the very notion of a two-day weekend began because of the Sabbath-Movement of the early twentieth century.[24] So much of our understanding of our right to rest, of what nowadays we often refer to as “work-life balance”—but which we might rather call a work-rest fulfillment—has been handed down to us from Jewish and Christian labor movements. So much work has been done for our rest. So much time has been spent to give us time.

But what strikes me about my memory of rest is the beneficial place of “society and civilization” behind it. Because what Olmsted and his fellows did was something truly remarkable in history, that human sense of time: they created a long-term, socially sanctioned sabbathing space. For Heschel, obviously, the Sabbath cannot ever be dependent upon civilization—governments will always pass away relatively soon after their coming in the grand scheme of things; and many, before doing so, behave like the devil on a deadline. The ownership of space can too easily possess us. Creation has always been ours to undo. But the practice of the Sabbath—the experience of it, the remembering and keeping of it—is dependent upon human beings. We can choose to sabbath, or we can choose to toil. We can even choose to keep others from keeping the sabbath, if we so dare. We can choose to define people by their toil. This is a deep irony and a grave power inherent in human beings. So, what Olmsted did in his designs, and what officials did in their approvals, and what the workers did over long years of hard digging and clearing, arranging and planting, is all the more striking in its generosity with space, in its treatment of space as time. Time and again, Olmsted called for the people to view the Park as a bequeathal: a gift of “intrinsic and lasting value,”[25] “available to the use, in a convenient and orderly way, of those needing it” in the now, and “steadily gainful of that quality of beauty which only comes with age” for successive generations to come.[26]

Of course, there’s something of American boldness to this view of Central Park. It’s not unlike the early glorifications of Yosemite and Yellowstone—and in fact some have thought the place to be the single greatest religious artwork in New York City. As Americans, we like to own on a grand, sometimes monstrous scale. Someone like Heschel is a candle shedding humble, unquenchable light on our enormity. But as Americans, as the demos (people) in democracy, we also belong—that is to say, we have the right to be, here and now. We belong in this moment, in this place. The fundamental statement of democracy, as I understand it, is that we belong to ourselves—both individually and collectively. Because we don’t live in a vacuum, this is a claim about time and space together. Our hope, as democratic beings, is that we will plant and grow and cultivate this common kind of life—and that includes a stewardship of a common kind of rest.

Ruminating on the progress of labor and education, Lincoln acknowledged the “this too shall pass” evaluation of all things. “And yet,” he goes on, “let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world around us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”[27]

Much of early American civil discourse had an abiding identification with the “Old Testament,” and many of our greatest civil benefactors had a Hebrew understanding of their part in history. Lincoln is a great exemplar of these folks. For him, our part in history is one of stewardship; by our hand the garden of America can always bear much fruit, or perishing, for “unborn millions to come.”[28] We have held a Civil War, but we have also offered civil rest. Lincoln had a generations’ long view of history—which is to say he looked from the present in both directions. His monumental Gettysburg Address begins and ends with liberty and equality: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth . . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”[29] As Robert Alter points out, Lincoln cancels out the very negative Old Testament (King James) use of the word “perish” to give it a most optimal sense: in the Bible “[i]t appears three times, always without the ‘not,’”[30] whereas in Lincoln’s usage it conveys to the people a reversal of impermanence—if not a total victory over death then at least a successful avoidance of it, a supreme, almost sanctified longevity for the nation.

Some may look at Lincoln’s speech as pure rhetoric—beautiful in its own stylistic way, but ultimately immaterial, given the cosmic way of things (what we know of it, anyway). But at least to many of his listeners his diction would have had a special resonance that harkened back to the ancient notion that human doings bore divine importance. The story that follows the seventh day of creation certainly avers that what even two of us do can stand (or fall) for all of time, which is to say eternity.

All of our places shall pass away. Our mountains will melt like wax, and that includes El Capitan, Ranier, Denali. All of our Great Lakes pooled together will measure like a droplet in a bucket, if that, compared to the surging, endless flow. But what of all of our most earnest endeavors to set apart, to guard places not as mere physical spots but as potential sites for restful memory? What of the brain, that mysteriously physical thing that makes connections to the passing, to the past as if it were present? Whether through synapses or something else, this tangle of material seems almost to make its roots in time. What of those all-encompassing grounds that seemed to yield our plantedness? What of those people who seemed to prepare those grounds for us?

Olmsted, in fighting to secure that “greensward,” did not know that some one-hundred-and-sixty years later an infirm and embittered post-post-graduate would come crawling onto it to find some much-needed sleep. Whoever planted that tree could never have known just how I’d benefit under its shade.  But many of these people did know that as long as the earth endured there would be a people in need of rest, and often in search of a place to find it. More than this, they remembered what being a human could be like, that like rest, like places, like everything under the sun, people can too easily pass, if people do not keep them.

* * *

This is not what I remembered. What I remembered, at least overtly, in some surface-crowding weeds of thought, was shame. And fear. I was, and am, intimidated by the difficult past. By the sense of haplessness that for a time became mundane for me. By the very real fact that at one point in my life I was “brought low” in the usual rank of things—that I, Nathan Elliot Smith, did not have the work and the benefits that seem to make a person valued, and therefore valuable. But something underneath was telling me to remember, really remember, what my experience was grounded in. Something underneath and above, all around, like an atmosphere.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” I always remember it with a “Thou shalt,” that phrase that reads like a long, terrific finger pointing at me from the far-off past. But the Sabbath should not cow me. The Sabbath, if I understand it even somewhat correctly, is meant to instill in me the opposite of a sense of judgment, toward myself and others. The Sabbath is meant to free all people from any worldly thing or force that might threaten to drive them like harried beasts, including and especially if that force is some fraction of the people themselves.

I suddenly remember the first people this commandment came to. I remember that they were a wandering, fearful people, a newly liberated and therefore still intimidated people. Human beings being what they are—brains and bodies capable of forcible or unwilling fixation in time (that is, trauma)—these people continued to walk within the shadow of enslavement. They had been brought to the lowest by other gods. Indeed, intimidation makes the falseness of an idol hard to see. For so long they had to hide the God of their forebears, the God of the Sabbath, from a both public and personal ravaging of space. And now that they were free, what were they supposed to do, how were they supposed to act? Now that they eligible within themselves to succeed or fail, how should they act? Now that they were a people, how should they face other peoples—peoples who might attempt to treat them as a means and not an end in themselves, as pure property and toil once again? With this kind of history, much of their waywardness must have come from wavering.

And much of what we call “commandment” must have seemed like guidance. After all, if the Ten Commandments are meant to be kept in all seasons, they have to entail any given state—wayward or committed, ashamed or fulfilled, fearful or aflight with fellow-feeling. Indeed, as Martin Buber points out, the terms of the Ten Commandments belong to faith, and not morality per se: they are shoulds from a trustworthy Person, not musts from a ruling authority.[31] The Decalogue then would seem more like directions from a Guide who knows just where to go, and what to avoid.[32] The “Thou shalts” could then appear in the language of direction-giving. “You’ll go this way, and not that way. You’ll come to this door, and take it. Then you’ll be home.”

“You’ll remember . . .” This is one of the directions, not just of the Sabbath, but of the memory connected to it, a major reason for never forgetting it.

“Six days you’ll labor, and do all your work. But the seventh day is the Rest of God. In it you won’t do any work, not you, or your son, or your daughter, or anyone in whom you find belonging. Not even your livestock. Not even, if you can help it, the strangers around you. With anyone you meet, you will not be a cause for them to work. Everyone will rest. Because you’ll remember that you were a stranger working in the land of Egypt, until the God of Rest brought you out and set you free. That is why the God of Rest wants you to rest.”[33] 

You’ll remember the Rest, because at one time you could not. You’ll remember to protect the Rest above all your doings—above all success and failure, above all pride and shame—because many people have protected it for you, and there are many left who still do not have it.


[1] For friends wondering what this term means, kindly peruse here or here.

[2] Again I see how truly callow (or just plain ill) I was: I didn’t stop to think of the little lives actually there on that cold metal pole, and how they would have happily made my life even lower if given the chance.

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 7.

[4] Ibid., p. 21.

[5] Ibid., p. 14.


[7] Ibid., pp. 3, 5.

[8] Ibid., p. 6.

[9] Exodus 20:8. For the verb “to make it holy,” Robert Alter gives the arcane but less clunky “hallow.” Holify might work if it didn’t sound so grasping and lazy.

[10] A fleeting religious experience depicted in Anton Chekhov’s famous story, “The Student.” From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of his Selected Stories, p. 266.

[11] From one of his last poems, “Shadows.”

[12] Robert Twombly, “Introduction” to Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts, p. 17. See also

[13] See Olmsted’s general historical account of such parks in “A Consideration of the Justifying Value of a Public Park” in Essential Texts, pp. 297-300.


[15] Frederick Law Olmsted, Essential Texts, p. 294.


[17] Frederick Law Olmsted, “A Review of Recent Changes, and Changes Which Have Been Projected, in the Plans of the Central Park,” in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, ed. Bill McKibben, pp. 125.

[18] Ibid., pp. 122-4.

[19] Olmsted, Essential Texts, pp. 307-8.

[20] Ibid., p. 123.

[21] Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Religion Is an Island,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 235.

[22] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, p. 417.

[23] The Sabbath, p. 16.

[24] See Benjamin Hunnicutt, “The Jewish Sabbath Movement in the Early Twentieth Century” in American Jewish History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (December 1979), pp. 196-225, and Philip Sopher, “Where the Five-Day Workweek Came From” in the Atlantic. For a fascinating (and for some frustrating) discussion of recent, twenty-first century “Sabbath movements,” see this article from Religion Dispatches.

[25] Essential Texts, p. 290.

[26] Ibid., p. 308.

[27] “Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” in Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865 (Library of America), p. 101.

[28] This phrase being Lincoln’s famous major crux to Republican senators for securing the Thirteenth Amendment. See:

[29] Garry Wills has given an illuminating study of just how revolutionary Lincoln’s framing of this speech is—that in bringing Americans back to the beginning of their democracy he might very well have reshaped their understanding of the Constitution. See Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, pp. 145-7.

[30] Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, p. 14.

[31] Martin Buber, “What Are We to Do About the Ten Commandments?” in On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, p. 118-21.

[32] Of course, this kind of reading smoothes over all the furrows done within the historical- and source-critical study of the Decalogue. While I do think some of the research around trauma and diaspora in the Israelite’s context(s) might confirm it, that field is really quite the rabbit’s warren of scholarship, and time is too precious for me to dwell there.

[33] Cf. Deuteronomy 5:12-15.


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