Contemplating Sabbatical

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It feels, and indeed is, impossible to write down these words without singing the words to the Byrds’ tune, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is based on the book of Ecclesiastes. In fact, I had to put down my pen and sing them. They feel rejoiceful, to turn my own phrase.

I remember the first time that I learned that the words for the song came from the Bible, Ecclesiastes in particular. I was sitting in Steve Gould’s History of Earth class, listening to him lecture about time’s arrow and time’s cycle, linear and cyclical time, the subject of the book on which he was working at the time. It opened my mind to the possibility of finding wisdom in the Bible. It was a startling recognition for me because up until that point I thought of religion as a source of oppression, mostly.

I guess there is some poetry to the fact that I am now rereading Gould’s relatively uncelebrated Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (1988). This book above all others has been my academic bible since I first encountered Steve twenty-five years ago as a graduate student. His consideration of deep time along with other fundamentals of geology, such as the igneous nature of basalt, has fueled my teaching and thinking over the past quarter century.

Sabbatical years run from one Rosh Ha-Shanah to the next. And here I sit, erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, the biblical beginning of my sabbatical year, thinking about time and shmita (the biblical sabbatical year), Jubilee year and meditation. How am I to use this time? Though I haven’t consulted it recently, my institution’s faculty governance is probably spare in describing the purpose of sabbatical leave. And this is not my first, not my second, nor merely my third sabbatical, so one might ask, why do I wonder about it? In fact, I’ve been thinking about this sabbatical as my Jubilee year sabbatical. As scholars more qualified to speak on this matter than I have pointed out, sabbatical has a biblical origin rooted in rest and spiritual regeneration.

According to Genesis, God created the earth and all its life in six days, and on the seventh day God rested, hence the seventh day as a Sabbath, a day of rest. Additionally, other books of the Old Testament describe the sabbatical year, the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycled mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel, in which tillers of the earth let the ground lie fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves are freed. I wonder how many of my academic colleagues recognize the biblical origin of sabbaticals every seventh semester or every seventh year (for those of us fortunate enough to be faculty at institutions that offer them). I’ve questioned a few of my colleagues about this and it has escaped the attention of most whom I’ve asked. Of course, I’m faculty at a religiously unaffiliated institution. Perhaps it’s different at Jesuit and other religious institutions of higher education.

For me, this sabbatical year has special significance. I’ve not had seven sabbaticals but this year I am fifty years old. According to the Bible, the sabbatical year was originally part of a fifty-year cycle of which the climax was the Jubilee year, when all land was returned to its ancestral owners and Hebrew slaves who had chosen to remain in service after the biblical six-year maximum were released. It feels right to me to plan to spend this special sabbatical year resting and contemplating time.

A Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society enables me to undertake this project, if one should even call it that, because the fellowship validates the endeavor. I’m reading about time; returning to the season of my earliest intellectual coming of age; considering directional time and cycling time; trying to understand how different cultures and religious/spiritual traditions have lived with it; hoping to find a way to develop a course on the subject as I promised the Center; and looking for ways to address with my colleagues the problem that University of Washington information technology professor David Levy refers to as “no time to think.”

There’s irony in making something of a sabbatical. The Googling I’ve done to see what others have written about the origins of academic sabbaticals leads me to a paucity of papers—a bit of history, a bit more about harnessing employees’ potential and utility for an institution or business. Most everything I read moves quickly beyond what seems to me to be the essence of sabbatical: renewal of spirit and intellect as they seek meaning and value in life.

I sit and stare at the orange and green photograph of a robed Thai monk gazing pensively across a small, still lily pond. A photographer friend and colleague gave me the photo more than a decade ago and it has traveled with me from the west coast of the United States to east, from house to dorm faculty apartment to house as if accompanying me because it would one day be significant beyond its attractive color and composition. It’s my purpose to sit, to be still, during my Jubilee sabbatical, and see what arises. I’m bolstered by having removed myself from the United States to accompany my spouse on her Fulbright to the University of the West Indies in Barbados, the country in the Western hemisphere with the oldest known synagogue founded in 1654 by Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution in Brazil. Physically away from demands of colleagues and expectations of students, I’m facilitating this opportunity to let the terrain of my mind lie fallow, to meditate to see what arises. This is the convergence of my contemplative practice fellowship and my sabbatical year. So to all my colleagues beginning sabbatical, and to all my dear ones, l’shana tova, let the sweet new year begin.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant; and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

– Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

  • Jill Schneiderman

    Jill S. Schneiderman is an interdisciplinary scholar who works in the fields of earth science, gender and environmental studies.

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