For me, the greatest gift of the Sabbath is the sense of perspective it provides - perspective on my work, on the world, and on our people.
When it comes to placing weekday work in its proper context, the benefits of Sabbath observance seem fairly obvious. In today's two-earner households, we are too often consumed by career responsibilities. It's easy to attach undue importance to your workplace assignments - reports and deadlines and meetings and productivity goals. Once a week, the Sabbath tells you that these fleeting demands aren't nearly as significant as they seem. That incoming e-mail can wait until Saturday night, that crucial phone call can be postponed for 25 hours.
Shabbat reminds us that small moments with family and friends count for more, ultimately, than big challenges in business. The old line that declares "No one ever asked for an epitaph saying ‘I wish I'd spent more time at the office'" still holds true; every week Shabbat serves to remind us of that truth. The workweek, with its triumphs and frustrations and desperately hectic pace, will still be there for you when the Sabbath concludes. Once a week, however, it helps to remind yourself that serving The Boss is more important than working for the boss... and no, this has nothing to do with Bruce Springsteen.
One of the most liberating moments of my life occurred 16 years ago, when I was still a relative newcomer to Sabbath and holiday observance. In promoting one of my books, I'd been chasing the (you should pardon the expression) Holy Grail of publicity: a national TV appearance on The Tonight Show. When it finally came through, it turns out that they wanted me on the night of a Jewish holiday. Being able to say no taught me a great deal-particularly how silly, how inconsequential many of our passionate pursuits may seem in retrospect, even big deal developments like a guest appearance on Johnny Carson's show. As it turned out, I had my Yom Tov peace and got re-invited to do the show at another time.
Shabbat frees you from the tyranny of the daily demands that own the rest of your life. What could more significantly represent personal freedom than learning to let the phone ring without feeling compelled to pick it up? No wonder that the "Kiddush" on Friday night describes Shabbat as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. It separates us from our normal bondage each week.
The second area in which Shabbat delivers a precious perspective comes from its ability to refocus our attention on the world in which we live.
With car travel eliminated, you're suddenly forced to walk where you want to go. And walking in your own neighborhood, week after week, demands that you see that piece of the world with entirely fresh eyes. You notice things on Shabbat that you never notice as you whizz past during the week - the new flowers that your neighbor planted, or the different family that moved in down the block, or the tree whose leaves are just beginning to change. Thanks to mass media, we all try to imitate the Almighty to some extent and cast our omniscient gaze over the entire world, learning at a glance the latest developments from Tel Aviv to Timbuktu. With media intake suspended, Shabbat narrows your focus - letting you and your family become more intimately familiar with that teeming, vibrant little world in the place you call home.
Part of the idea is learning to accept that world as you receive it on Friday at sundown. We spend so much of our human effort trying to alter reality, trying to adjust our reality. It's this ability to exert creative (or destructive) effort that makes us uniquely human - and Godlike, created in his image. And like the Holy One, blessed be He, we pull back on the seventh day from our restless labors and rejoice in the work of creation - seeing this world as complete (if imperfect) in its own terms. We don't need to worry about remodeling the house or replanting the garden on this day, anymore than God needs to remodel His universe or replant His garden.
The third way in which the Sabbath encourages a better sense of perspective involves our connection to our Jewish brothers and sisters. At the same time Shabbat takes us temporarily out of the larger world, it forces us to reconnect with our fellow Jews. This is particularly true when you're away from home, but invariably thrown together with others who honor the Sabbath day. In the same way, Shabbat connects us with our past.
Sentimentality over your Bubbe "benching licht" (lighting the Sabbath candles) runs deep among most Jews - this household gesture speaks of connection and continuity, as do the many rituals (kiddush, motzi, zemiros) of the Shabbat table. When we bless our children, we establish the link with future generations.
The point of all this is a reminder that we are not alone. Jewish observance may seem weird, willful, alien - but it connects us with countless other people, alive and dead, in every corner of the earth. The Havdalah ceremony that marks the conclusion of the Sabbath praises the God who makes distinctions, "who separates between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor." Creating in His image, following His model of creativity, we also emphasize distinctions. Perhaps not the separations with which God created the world - drawing distinctions between light and darkness, waters above from waters beneath, sea from dry land, and so forth. But in our own smaller separations, and for our own crucially separate identity as Jews, marking Shabbat as irreducibly different from the rest of the week would represent an ideal place to begin.
Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show. He is a member of the USA Today board of contributors, and an author of several books, including the bestsellers Hollywood vs. America and What Really Happened to the Class of '65.