Today, the very idea of “going for a walk” is a radical act of purposeful purposelessness. On Shabbos, it’s just what you do, because you must, but really because you can.
Sometimes there’s freedom in what you’re not allowed to do.
Preventing professional athletes from taking anabolic steroids might seem like an unfair restriction on the pursuit of ultimate performance, but if it were permissible, it would be necessary. Anyone who wanted to play sports at the highest level would have to take performance enhancing drugs to even qualify for selection.
Nobody watching me trip over my own feet on the squash court would mistake me for a professional athlete, but I do like a good stroll.
Unfortunately, I live in a notoriously walking-unfriendly city. Nobody walks in Johannesburg if they can avoid it. If you walk, it’s because you lack access to a suitable alternative. Jogging is socially permissible, but you need to do it with great intensity of purpose.
Social walking is embarrassing for everyone concerned. I finally summoned the courage to embark on a suburban meander and was stopped within 15 minutes by a concerned friend who happened to be driving by.
“Can I offer you a lift?”
“Thanks, but I’m walking.”
“But it’s so far.”
“That’s kind of the point.”
“How will you get home?”
I admit that last comment did give me pause (in the end, my enthusiasm for recreational walking lasted about as long as it took to realise I could Uber back to civilisation).
Even when you do manage to pull off a walk unharried by passing motorists, it’s near impossible to shake off the all-seeing eye of the social media surveillance state.
Just the other week, I embarked on an urban hike that was marked more by the demands of our advanced industrial society than the whimsy of the flaneur. Birds were chirping, butterflies were fluttering, in a nearby park dogs were frolicking, but all I could hear was the insistent muttering of my companion, who was tracking our steps with her Fitbit and would shout at me each time I tried to take an ice-cream break. It was Sunday, but I was on the clock.
Our bipedal journey was quantified, measured, sliced, diced, weighed and calibrated, but I couldn’t really tell you what we saw. I was too busy trying to make 10 000 steps within an hour. In the end, all I know for sure is that we completed our walk seven minutes behind schedule and that it burned 2.5 strawberries worth of calories.
What does all this have to do with freedom and restriction?
On Shabbos, you walk because you have to, but soon enough, you walk because you can.
You stop and reflect on the beauty of your surroundings. Admittedly, in suburban Johannesburg that might mean the glint of the sun reflected on an electric fence or the lush coat of your neighbour’s Rottweiler.
It is often said that religion gives people a sense of purpose, but Shabbos also gives us something deeper: the freedom of no purpose. Shabbos is a reminder that being is the whole point.
In the modern world, the very idea of “going for a walk” is a radical act of purposeful purposelessness. On Shabbos, it’s just what you do, because you must, but really because you can.
Is life about the journey or the destination? Shabbos is a glimpse of a deeper truth: on some level, those aren’t even different things.