As we enter the new month of Av, I’d like to use this platform as an opportunity to give a more detailed focus on Shabbat, the day we come together as a community to learn and grow.
Shabbat is the essence of Judaism, the central pillar of our faith. The first law given to the Jews after the splitting of the sea (even before Sinai) was the Sabbath. The first law explained to a would-be convert is also the Sabbath [Talmud Yevamot 47]. It testifies and evokes the three most seminal moments of past and future that define our Jewish present. These moments are evoked in each of three main Amidot (standing prayers): On Friday evening we evoke and re-experience the creation of the world (“And God completed the heavens and the earth…”); on Shabbat morning we re-experience Sinai (“Moses rejoiced with the gift of his portion … the two tablets of stone he brought down in his hands”); and on Shabbat afternoon we attempt to experience the Redemption (“You are One and Your Name is One.” The prophet Zechariah teaches that “on that day [of Redemption] will God be One and will His name be One”). Creation, revelation and redemption are the bedrock of the Jewish mission.
Certainly the glow of the Sabbath candles, the Kiddush wine, the familial and congenial togetherness of Sabbath meals replete with angels of peace, blessings of children, songs of holiness and words of Torah, all contribute to a special and unique day.
But the Sabbath is more still. Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have, but to be.” The mitzvah of “shevitah,” or literally ceasing on Shabbat, provides us with the opportunity to stop and simply be. Shabbat is an opportunity to become mindful of what is already true moment by moment. It teaches us how to be unconditionally present and experience the neshama yetera of Shabbat, the extra breath of Shabbat, receiving the presence of God on Shabbat. When we are mindful, we appreciate quality, not quantity. We appreciate the quality of the food of Shabbat, the unique qualities of each member of our family, and we appreciate the opportunity to connect with God. Shabbat can generate an experience like a mindfulness retreat if all of our actions while awake are devoted to deepening our awareness of the moment.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in early 19th century Germany, sensed the profound relevance of Shabbat for the industrial society. He exclaimed, “Sabbath in our time! To cease for a whole day from all business, from all work, in the frenzied hurry-scurry of our time! To close the exchanges, the workshops and factories, to stop all railway services — great heavens! How would it be possible? The pulse of life would stop beating and the world would perish! The world would perish? On the contrary, it would be saved.” About 200 years later, a New York Times Magazine article commented about lifestyles in the United States, “A nation of remarkably productive, often well-paid workers… are becoming increasingly reluctant to pause from their labors and refresh their souls.” It is easy to be in the moment while on vacation. But it is necessary for our mental health, and for our souls, to be in the moment while not on vacation.
That is the power of Shabbat if we allow ourselves to utilize this weekly opportunity.
In the coming weeks, we will explore more of the depth of Shabbat and the system set in place to help us access the beauty of the day.