The holy is serious stuff, not something to be taken lightly. We more often associate religion with solemnity than with play. Yet, Jewish tradition teaches that we will be held accountable for every permissible pleasure we are given to enjoy and do not enjoy. According to the ancient rabbis, jesters have a portion in the world-to-come because they make people laugh.
“No matter how busy we are, we are to set aside a day for leisure. We take a deep breath, let go, let be and play. It is not a friendly suggestion; it is a divine commandment.”
Joyfulness is a virtue. At the heart of spiritual life is playfulness. Ecclesiastes teaches: “there is a season set for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven”. Among those seasons, “there is a time for weeping and a time for laughing”. The Hebrew word translated as “laughing’ (‘s’hok) is also the word for “play”. Ecclesiastes reminds us – sacred time should include play.
That is the purpose of Sabbath. No matter how busy we are, we are to set aside a day for leisure. We take a deep breath, let go, let be and play. It is not a friendly suggestion; it is a divine commandment.
“Religion at its very best celebrates the redemptive power of play.”
Ritual and liturgy are forms of play. In the Jewish tradition we know that lighting candles doesn’t magically change ordinary into sacred time, Friday night into Sabbath, but we act as if it does. We know that words of prayer don’t actually make wine and bread sacred or bring peace, but we act as if they might. Through the power of creative play and imagination, somehow, they do.
Alice McDermott taught that “fiction is a lie that remakes the world”. When children delight in fairy tales they are able to scale mountains, scare away monsters and defeat giants. Through story they play out their fears and learn that they can remake their world.
What might that mean for religion? Not all faith narratives depict historical events; they are not meant to be taken literally. Yet they have the power to allow us to face our fears, overcome them and remake the world.
When Jews sit around the Passover table and reenact the Exodus story, we say that we too were slaves in Egypt and were redeemed. When we celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments, we too stand at Sinai. This is sacred imagination, a form of play. We imagine the world as it might be and then commit to make it so.
Religion at its very best celebrates the redemptive power of play.