We Make Shabbat Housecalls
Rosh Hashannah, First Day 2008
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
The Talmud tells us,
“When the Second Temple stood, six blasts of the Shofar announced the approach of the Sabbath to the Jewish community.
The first blast signaled the farmers to stop their plowing, digging, or other work in the fields.
The second blast directed the merchants in the towns to place the shutters on their windows and close their shops.
The third blast meant that all the cooking must end and the time had come to light the Sabbath lamp.
Soon after, three more blasts proclaimed the official beginning of the Sabbath.”
While we associate the sound of the Shofar exclusively with Rosh Hashannah, our ancient forbears associated the sound of the Shofar as the siren for the commencement of Shabbat. The Shofar served as the alarm to end work and begin Shabbat. It called us to rest, to put aside our struggle for survival for a respite. The Shofar was a call to stop and turn in a new direction toward rest and freedom.
This year as we blow the Shofar we are particularly anxious. We are consumed with financial worries because of a teetering economy. We are stressed parents with jobs and family demands 24/7. We are business people with sleepless nights worrying about the viability of our enterprises. We are retirees who are terribly anxious about the fate of our nest eggs. We are all Americans witnessing our country in the midst of an historic election with fateful consequences. We are all Jews who worry about the future of Israel as it faces mortal threats to its existence. We are all humans worried about the impact of climate change and the consequences of our addiction to oil and environmentally degrading behaviors.
We can give up in hopelessness and despair, or we can do concrete things to help improve the world. We can also change our lives to live in better synch with our physical world and our fellows.
In this time of uncertainty the Shofar provides a hint to a source of a source of hope and relief. It points us to the Shabbat-the spiritual resource our tradition offers as a counterpoint to anxiety and the strains of living in a world of uncertainty.
My argument is straight forward. In these times of uncertainty and worry, of excess and degradation, we need to return to the time tested way we Jews have used to live in this world. We desperately need the Shabbat.
Why do we need Shabbat?
We need Shabbat because we have lost the capacity to rest. year 000
Here are a few examples:
Americans are working more than medieval peasants did, and more than the citizens of any other industrial country.
On average, we work nearly nine full weeks (350 hours) LONGER per year than our peers in Western Europe do.
Working Americans average a little over two weeks of vacation per year, while Europeans average five to six weeks. Many of us (including 37% of women earning less than $40,000 per year) get no paid vacation at all.
We need Shabbat because we need a pause from a pace of life that is making us sick and even is killing us.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak to parents at our new Shabbat afternoon program for the Torah school. I shared with them one of the main aims of Shabbat is to create an island of time free from stress and anxiety. I then asked them to share the anxieties that they carry with them that they would like to find a way to reduce. The litany of anxiety was striking, made even more severe by the absorbing and scary events of Wall Street in the past couple of weeks. The heaviness in the room was palpable as parent after parent confessed to their anxieties about money, work, and caring for the children. Their stress is echoed across America as people complain of unprecedented levels of busyness in everyday life. We worry about frenetic schedules, hurried children, no time to be together, or to share meals. We face an onslaught of "hidden work" from proliferating emails, phone calls at any moment of the day, and an endless information glut from the Internet.
We need Shabbat to rediscover how to be together with our families and friends
We live in a culture in which eating is crammed into a compressed, frenetic schedule. One study found that 1/5th of all eating of a typical American is in the car. Michael Polin, the chronicler of our national eating disorder, describes the typical family meal of 2008: “Mom might still cook something for herself and sit at the table for a while, but she’ll be alone for much of the time. That’s because dad and each of the kids are likely to prepare an entirely different entrée for themselves, preparing in this case being a synonym for microwaving a package. Each family member might then join mom at the table for as long as it takes to eat, but not necessarily all at the same time. Kraft and General Mills are now determining the portion sizes, not mom and the social value of sharing food is lost. A meal at home looks a lot more like a restaurant meal, where everyone orders his or her own dish.”
His account reminds me of the movie Avalon which depicts the changing fortunes of a Jewish immigrant family’s by depicting their festive meals and family gatherings from the early days of their immigrant ghettos to their eventual move to the suburbs. The last scenes show a fragmented family, glued to the TV set while eating their TV dinners, and unable to interact with each other anymore.
We don’t know how to share a meal together in a relaxed way. We don’t know how to turn off our anxiety. We don’t know how to stop working.
We have lost the WHOLENESS OF SHABBAT. That wholeness is captured by the Yiddish word: Shabbasdik. How many of you recall the word and what it meant. To say something was Shabbasdik indicated that it had an emotive connection to Shabbat. Gefilte Fish is shabbasdik. Sleep is shabbasdik, singing is shabbasdik. As one great Rabbi once wrote, It is the duty and the privilege of the Jew to be able to make the Sabbat, laasot, to Sabbath a Sabbath. His point is that Sabbath should not be considered a noun, but is a verb, a behavior, a way of living that we have lost. We must learn again to Sabbath a Sabbath.
We have lost the art of sabbathing a Sabbath because we have slipped into a reality in which we live to work, not work to live. We run because we no longer no how to walk. We rush because we feel compelled to keep up.
How do we recover the Wholeness of Shabbat, how do we relearn to Sabbath a Sabbath?
First, we can recover the full meaning of Shabbat by becoming intentional about leaving our anxiety and worry behind on Friday evening.
When I have people to my home for Shabbat, I pass out a basket and ask people to put in objects of the work week in it as a way of letting go of the devices that add to our daily stress. People put in their keys, their cell phones, their wallets, to spare themselves of the anxiety of the week for a few hours. I ask people what worry or anxiety they would like to let go of for Shabbat.
Authentic Jewish spirituality is tied to our ability to detach from the demands of our daily lives and to “rest”. Shabbat Menuchah-Sabbath Rest- is a Jewish mode of living in which we refocus on dimensions of our lives and those around us that the demands of survival prevent us from pursuing. Do we have the ability to elevate our lives? Do we know how to give quality time to those we love and like to be with? To Sabbath the Sabbath is to find joy in spiritual rest. A shabbasdik person has learned how to detach from the obsessions and distractions of labor, habits, and the daily grind.
Second, we can recover the wholeness of Shabbat if we strengthen our synagogue as a Shabbat gathering place where we experience rest, joy, and community: We have to ask ourselves, Do our services create community? Do they impart the spirit of Shabbat to us? Do they connect us one to another?
This year we have begun to rethink how Shabbat is experienced and presented at the synagogue. It is not sufficient to offer services, rather we have to think about how those services or anything we do on Shabbat creates a caring and mutual community and instills within us a love for the Sabbath day.
As part of this rethinking we have introduced two new initiatives: We are launching this fall a new Friday night service cycle featuring beautiful and spiritual moving musical services. We have found that the musical services led by Cantor Kripper bring joy and comfort to many of our congregants. People desire to sing and to participate at services. The new musical services make it easier for people to connect and to connect to each other. Rabbi Cantor Gelman is also planning on introducing an occasional musical Shabbat morning service as well along the lines of the music he has introduced for the first time on this Rosh Hashannah.
The second initiative involves our community of families. We have started on Shabbat afternoons a monthly family Shabbat program through the Torah School. It is called the Shavua Tov program and brings together all our families to share in a relaxing Shabbat afternoon together at the synagogue. Families learn, pray, play, eat, and hang out together for a whole afternoon. We have parallel activities for children and adults culminating in whole family Shabbat celebrations and Havdallah.
Third, we will rediscover the Wholeness of Shabbat if we bring it home.
Why do I urge that Shabbat be brought home? Isn’t it enough to go to Shabbat at the synagogue? One of the unintended consequences of the Conservative Movement’s decision in the 50s to permit driving to the synagogue was to make Shabbat too synagogue centered. Three generations of Conservative Jews learned that you only do Shabbat at synagogues to the point that most Conservative Jews no longer know how to Sabbath a Sabbath at their homes.
Our friends in Chabad saw early this empty space in the spiritual lives of Conservative Jews. Wherever Chabad established itself, its shelichim (representatives) started inviting Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jews to their homes for Shabbat meals. Over the decades Chabad built its stellar reputation on this commitment of sharing their Sabbath tables with any Jew who said yes to their frequent invitations. The Jewish demographer Stephen Cohen told me that the one of the most common markers of young Jews identifying with their Judaism is their having experienced Shabbat dinners in the homes of rabbis, Jewish educators, or fellow Jews.
We need to come home to having Sabbath at home. Beth Shalom is setting aside one Friday night a month to encourage our members to do Shabbat at home. We provide support to everyone who wants to host a Shabbat dinner and encourage them to invite friends and guests to their tables. But we go one step further. We help our members offer the most stimulating, fun, and engaging Shabbat meals by making available a special guest. This guest is available to come to your home with a Shabbat experience to share with your family, friends, and guests. They are called Shabbat Table Animators. We have recruited seven of them, including myself and our Education director, Rabbi Hanien. Each of us is available to make Shabbas house calls. Instead of you coming to the synagogue, the synagogue comes to you.
This idea was awarded a prestigious national renewable grant from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Fund. This initiative is called the Shalom Aleichem Shabbat Program after the beloved hymn that opens the Friday night Shabbat rituals. We hope that many of you will host at least one Shabbat dinner on one of the six Shalom Aleichem Shabbats over this coming year. Or if you are not ready to host, sign up to be a guest and experience some of the most enjoyable and inspiring Shabbat experiences.
(The details of this program and our new Friday night cycle are in the Shabbat Renewal Packets you have received when you entered this morning. )
The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel captured the essence of why Shabbat is the greatest idea and most beloved mitzvah of the Jewish people. I paraphrase a passage from his classic, The Sabbath
What is it to live the Sabbath? To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of war, a day for cultivating our spiritual selves, a day of detachment from commonplace concerns, of independence from draining obligations, a day on which we stop obsessing over the idols of technology, a day on which we turn away from money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow human beings and the forces of blind nature.
As you now know, the Shofar was a call for Shabbat as well as an audial signpost for the arrival of the New Year. According to many Jewish commentators, the primary purpose of the blowing of Shofar on RH is to jar people to change-to turn-to make Teshuvah-the Hebrew term for turning away from sin. Change is at the heart of the blowing of Shofar before Shabbat in ancient times. The Shofar calls on the Jew to pivot: from sin to repentance, from labor to rest, from missing the mark to finding the way, from anxiety to joy.
Let us listen to the spiritual call of the Shofar and reclaim the spiritual capacity to pivot, to change, and to preserve holiness in our lives. Join us in our effort to reclaim the holiness of Shabbat at Beth Shalom.