I was pretty upset, at nobody in particular, but I was upset, maybe at myself. We found five days when our entire family, including our married daughter, her husband, and (most importantly) our granddaughter, could spend vacationing together. We decided to rent a house in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the same house that I rented a few years ago, and I was told by the owners and by other residents of the area that, no guarantees, but there will almost certainly be a minyan, as there was the last time we rented this house a few years back.
Unfortunately, at the last minute, a number of Orthodox Jewish vacationers canceled their plans, and I was left without a minyan for Shabbat. As such, I was upset, mostly at myself for relying on the assurances that I received regarding the minyan. This was the first time in 11 years that I was without a minyan for Shabbat, the last time being when I was in the hospital with my wife when my youngest child was born.
What to do? My youngest daughter suggested that we daven a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat together as a family, and I half-heartedly agreed.
In truth, that Kabbalat Shabbat was absolutely beautiful and inspiring. In fact, this non-minyan tefilla, of welcoming the Shabbat Queen together with my family by singing the Tehillim of David Hamelech, was probably one of my highlights on this trip. I was reflecting why that was so, and I think that perhaps it was at that moment that I truly felt the power of Shabbat. I truly felt that each member of our family was in the moment at that time.
In reference to Shabbat, 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.
Maybe there was something about being by ourselves, on vacation, away from everyone that helped foster this feeling of mindfulness, of shevita, on this particular Shabbat. Perhaps being out of the typical setting that we have become so accustomed to shook us out of our complacency, and awakened us to really focus on the beauty of our atypical surroundings.
I wondered whether it is possible to replicate these feelings on a regular Shabbat, after the hustle-bustle of the week, when our minds are so preoccupied with so many worries and anxieties. But, of course, I realized, that that is actually when we need Shabbat the most. 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. After this past Shabbat, I resolved to be more careful in ensuring that there will be a minyan on Shabbat when I am away for vacation. I also resolved to try harder to bring the spirit of last Shabbat’s family Kabbalat Shabbat, the mindfulness and the shevita, into my home each and every week.