Are You a Functional Atheist?
If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time up in your head thinking about getting your work done--planning, striving, checking items off the mental to-do list, worrying about how to keep all the balls in the air and how to meet this or that deadline or get ahead.
It’s no wonder, then, that Friday rolls around and we find ourselves feeling tense and hardened. In all the doing, we have forgotten how to just be.
My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, used to say that the mind is like tofu; it takes on the flavor of whatever you soak it in.
If we’ve spent six days soaking our mind in the marinade of doing, striving, competing, and achieving, we need something to cleanse our mental palate so we can relax deeply and come into a more peaceful state of mind.
Perhaps this is why Rabbi Isaac Luria selected Psalm 95 as the opening hymn for the Kabbalat Shabbat service, in which we make the transition from weekday mind into Shabbat mind.
Think of each of the Psalms that makes up the Kabbalat Shabbat service as a support for making this transition more fully. Psalm 95 functions for me in this way, and it also helps me find my way back to Shabbat mind in the midst of my busy life, even if it’s not Friday night.
It does so by offering a simple yet profound instruction for practice:
Al takshu levavkhem kimrivah
“Don’t harden your heart as you did at Merivah” (v. 8)
The Psalmist’s reminder hearkens back to a story from this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach:
The entire community of the children of Israel...encamped in Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. So the people quarreled with Moses, and they said, “Give us water that we may drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” …Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do for this people? Just a little longer and they will stone me!...” He named the place Massah (testing) and Merivah (quarreling) because of the quarrel of the children of Israel and because of their testing the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” (Shemot/ Exodus 17:1-7)
Merivah is the place where, when faced with their own fear and discomfort, the people forgot that in very recent memory God had liberated them from Egypt and provided manna and quail to satisfy their hunger.
When confronted with the immediacy of their thirst, the Israelites forgot the bigger picture and chose quarrel, contention, reactivity, and dissent over trust and connection…
We spend so much of our weekday lives contending with our circumstances, trying to change, shape, control, and influence. Yet so much of our activity is driven by fear. The worry that unless we work harder to amass more wealth we will never be secure.
The anxiety that unless we achieve our goals, meet our deadlines, and get that promotion we won’t receive the recognition or the paycheck we crave.
The sinking fear that if we don’t keep all of the balls up in the air no one else will, and the whole deck of cards that is our life will come tumbling down all around us.
Weekday mind is driven by a mentality of scarcity and insecurity, what the contemplative educator Parker Palmer calls functional atheism:
A second shadow inside many of us is the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests. Notice how often we use images of warfare as we go about our work, especially in organizations. We talk about tactics and strategies, allies and enemies, wins and losses, “do or die.” If we fail to be fiercely competitive, the imagery suggests, we will surely lose, because the world we live in is essentially a vast combat zone.
Unfortunately, life is full of self-fulfilling prophecies. The tragedy of this inner shadow, our fear of losing a fight, is that it helps create conditions where people feel compelled to live as if they were at war. Yes, the world is competitive, but largely because we make it so. Some of our best institutions, from corporations to change agencies to schools, are learning that there is another way of doing business, a way that is consensual, cooperative, communal: they are fulfilling a different prophecy and creating a different reality (Ibid. p. 6-7).
Indeed, our fears may be real and our need great, but we can relate to our experience--even our anxieties--in a manner that softens the heart and brings a deeper sense of peace, ease, and mutuality.
At least for one day out of seven, Luria reminds us through the Psalmist’s words, we can put down our fists and soften into a more accepting faith-based relationship with our experience.
Instead of adopting a mentality of scarcity, imagining that everything rests on us, or relating to life as a kind of battleground, we can actively practice meeting our experience from a stance of superabundance, humility, and peaceful acceptance.
And, as our Sages remind us, with such an orientation to our lives, we might meet this moment, this project, this person, this relationship “as if all our work is done” (Mekhilta Ba’chodesh 7).
The more we practice doing so within the protective container of Shabbat, the more we will grow in our ability to do so in the very midst of our busy and hectic lives.
Consider making a formal transition from your work week into Shabbat.
A simple way to do so might be to take a few moments on Friday at sundown, perhaps at candle-lighting, to notice any anxiety and tension that may have built up in your body during the week.
Then, as you take a deep breath in, remind yourself, “Don’t harden your heart.” On the outbreath, relax the tension and rest in the ease of letting it all go and trusting that what needs to be done will get done in due time. For now, all you need to do is sit back, rest, and be.
You can repeat this practice during the week when you notice yourself getting anxious, striving, and tensing up. Then go back to your work and see if the practice changes how you proceed.