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Shabbat after the Law

Be connected, be still, and be satisfied -- my 3 essential principles of Shabbat do more for me than all the halacha I learned to be a rabbi

I can’t remember the first time that I had a proper Shabbat dinner, the first time that I heard the blessings over the wine and the candles which magically transformed regular time into the sanctified time of Shabbat.

I do remember, however, years upon years of Shabbat dinners, when I could drop my worries and burdens and relish a slower pace, where real conversations, deep conversations, were possible. Shabbat was the anchor of my life, and the place where many of my deepest friendships and relationships were formed.

My commitments to Judaism in general and Shabbat in particular were formed in southern Jerusalem, anchored by Pardes and the Hartman Institute and the Upper West Side of New York, anchored by Hadar and the Jewish Theological Seminary — places of relatively traditional yet still egalitarian Jewish observance.

Shabbat was a delight — a day of connection and stillness, where halacha, or traditional Jewish law, was justified by the experience of the day itself. Whether or not God desired my rest was ultimately secondary to the wonderful experience of Shabbat meals with old and new friends, singing familiar songs and sharing words of Torah. Divine desire for my rest was never denied; it just wasn’t really considered.

I was never orthodox my worldview, but I was in my practice, and my practice was rooted in a commitment to the communities I was (and am) blessed to be part of. And, as people in that community sometimes do, I became a Conservative rabbi. So, for the better part of a decade, I have been blessed to serve as the community rabbi in Beacon, NY, a place not very far from the Upper West Side in terms of miles, but very far in terms of Shabbat culture.

When my wife and I moved to Beacon in 2010, we had an 18-month old daughter and knew nobody in town. I wasn’t the rabbi here back then — I was a rabbi, but my employment was at American Jewish World Service, a human rights organization based in New York City, and we were members of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, the synagogue I now serve as rabbi. We observed Shabbat the way we and virtually everyone we knew in our communities of Jerusalem and the Upper West Side did. We bought a house in walking distance of this synagogue, we would set up our hot plate on Friday afternoons so we didn’t have to cook on Shabbat and at one level, we simply reveled in the energy of being new parents, happy in our cocoon. I have a picture from that time in which I am wearing tallis and tefillin, davening in the morning, holding my young daughter, who is wearing toy tefillin that a friend carefully made for her.

We were also lonely. I remember having a Shabbat meal with the rabbi who was my predecessor at Beacon Hebrew Alliance. We had him over, and singing with him around the Shabbat table brought the comfort that comes from finding someone else who speaks your native language in a foreign land.

Now, it’s 10 years later, and our 11-year-old daughter has a 7-year-old brother, and my wife and I are lucky enough to have a wide range of wonderful friends in this community who we love dearly. There are incredible blessings to living in this community, but it isn’t a community of Orthodox Shabbat observance. And so the way that me and my family observe Shabbat has changed as well.

The changes were gradual and each one was for a good reason. We started driving to shul during the icy winter of 2011, when my wife Alison was pregnant with our youngest child, and then found ourselves driving further afield to be with the new friends we were making here. We started using our landline to make calls because the wonderful people were meeting were unaccustomed to making plans far in advance or alternately, showing up unannounced, and we grew tired of being alone on Shabbat.

Each of the changes has made sense, and they allowed us to be part of this beloved community, and yet we’ve lost something precious along the way. Shabbat is an ancient antidote to our modern ailments and it’s something I — and I think all of us — need more than ever.

So, inspired by Michael Pollan, the prolific writer about food and agriculture, who summarized his entire teaching as “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants,” I want to lay out three short principles for Shabbat as a day of rest and delight. My family and I have started to apply them to our lives, and in the few months that we’ve been working with them, they have brought together the wonderful realities of living in Beacon with the beautiful possibilities of what Shabbat was and might yet be for us.

I’ll elaborate on each of them in turn, but these are the three essential principles of Shabbat: Be connected, be still and be satisfied.

First, Be Connected

In a traditional world, Shabbat is the time when everyone is free, everyone is available to talk, everyone puts aside the things they need to do in order to focus on who they need to be. It is an insult to say that someone machen Shabbes far zich or “makes Shabbas for themselves,” because Shabbas, more than any other time, is when we come together with others.

Sociologist Brene Brown teaches that “we humans are hardwired for connection. It’s what we are here for, it’s what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.” Yet most of us are terribly, cripplingly lonely. According to Vivek Murthy, the former US Surgeon General, the most pressing public health issue in the country isn’t alcoholism, drug use, heart disease or obesity. It’s the pain of isolation which underlies our self-destructive self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

By and large, the challenge isn’t knowing people — the challenge is actually connecting with the people we know.

A few years back, there was an epic winter storm in the Hudson Valley — schools, and businesses were shut down, and cars were banned from the roads. Nobody could go anywhere.

The delight of the day was that it wasn’t one person who had the day off — everyone had the day off. Some neighbors planned a last-minute party because suddenly, everyone was free to hang out because nobody could do anything.

The pacing of our lives can make connection difficult — the ballet rehearsal schedule of your family doesn’t match up with the baseball practice of my family and next weekend, I have cousins coming in, so let’s look ahead to next month to see if there is a time we can get together.

So on a practical level, what might it mean to prioritize the value of connection on Shabbat?

  • Be a Host. Take on the practice of simply inviting people over. Whether you live in a palace or a hovel, whether you serve gourmet food on fine china or pizza from a takeout box, invite people over. You don’t need to know them that well, and you do not need to make a lifelong commitment. Simply reach out and say, “I’m having some people over this Friday evening and would love if you could be there.” Trusting someone enough to invite them into your home is the essential building block of community.
  • Be a Guest. Just as hosting is a practice, so too is guesting. If someone invites you over, respond promptly to the invitation, saying that you can make it or regretting that you can’t make it. Don’t make the host chase after you to get a response — they might be planning on inviting others if you can’t make it, but they can’t do that till they get an answer from you. Beyond that, if you tell someone that you will be joining them, understand it as a commitment. Not a blood oath, but a commitment. Don’t call, or worse, text, an hour beforehand to say you can’t make it unless it is truly an emergency. If someone trusts you enough to invite you into their home, live up to that trust by honoring the commitment you’ve made. And even if the host tells you that you don’t need to bring anything, show up with a bottle of wine.
  • Invest in Community: Many communities have regular communal potluck dinners. Get your lasagna or kale salad into a tupperware and head over. There will always be a reason to skip it — it’s too cold or its too hot, there are too many people or too few, its too boring, it’s too loud. All these things are true, and yet, you should go. Community happens when people show up. If you want to be part of a community, you have to be part of a community. It will pay you back in ways you can’t necessarily imagine.

So that’s principle #1 — be connected. Principle number two is Be Still

Our lives are filled to the brim; our houses are filled with more stuff than we know what to do with, our bodies are filled with more calories than we can make use of, and our calendars are filled with more activities than we can ever possibly enjoy. I usually feel like l am rushing from one thing to another, dropping a kid off here before picking a kid up there and on the way, having a phone meeting and stopping to pick up eggs. At least I feel that way six days a week.

An essential aspect of Shabbat is slowing down, being still, resting. The word Shabbat literally means sitting still, and even more, the blessings of kiddush invite us to shavat v’yinafash – literally rest and get our souls back. What might happen if consciously and deliberately, we left big blocks of time unscheduled one day a week? Chunks of time which we couldn’t anxiously fill with anything that needed to be done — no checklists or errands, nothing productive. What if we took a day off from fooling ourselves that our lives are justified by what we accomplish? What if we literally stopped and smelled the roses for a day?

It’s not that our days are filled with bad things; they are just filled with too many things and we run from one to the other to the other. Yet on Shabbat, the Shulchan Aruch teaches that rushing is prohibited, because there is nowhere else you need to be. Where you are is where you need to be and what you are doing is what you need to be doing. We have six days dedicated to accomplishing things, but Shabbat is the day to simply “be here now,” in the stillness of Shabbat mind.

It has never been easy to actually be present — we are here, but our naturally wandering minds are drawn there. You might be having that experience now, while I am speaking. You’re not alone. Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Master Yoda chastised young Luke Skywalker, saying “All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? On what he was doing.” Of course, while Luke had to rely on his imagination to take his mind far away from his body, we have these marvelous cell phones, which allow us and encourage us to take our minds far from where we are.

So, on a practical level, what might it mean to prioritize stillness on Shabbat? Again, three things:

  • Turn your phone off. If you feel you really need to reach someone, turn it on, make the call, and turn it off again. And actually call, don’t text — when you call, you are on the phone for a few minutes, and then you are off the phone. When we text, we’re constantly checking the phone for a response and being drawn away from the people we are actually with.
  • Don’t schedule much. Gather with friends, go to shul, take a hike — but maybe not all on the same day. Leave blocks of time where nothing is scheduled. Perhaps that can be time for a nap, or a serendipitous encounter with a friend who walks by, or staring off into the distance, letting our minds lie fallow for a while.
  • Practice. Experiment and identify practices and traditions which bring you into the day. Traditionally, these would be lighting candles and making kiddush, but perhaps there are other practices which work for you. That’s fine — whatever practice you choose, use it to bring your focus into the here and now.

So that’s principle number two – be still. The midrash teaches אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב — the last is the most beloved, so we come now to the most beloved principle of Shabbat — be satisfied.

Every week at my family’s Shabbat dinner table, we all share something we’re thankful for. Even in the hardest weeks, when there is plenty of pain to be acknowledged, there is always a moment of grace worthy of gratitude.

Practicing gratitude does not negate the real suffering that we humans endure; neither does it make our suffering comprehensible or worthwhile. It merely says that our experiences of beauty and joy are true, even as our experiences of pain and suffering are also true. The practice of gratitude is the choice to celebrate and lift up the moments of joy and beauty.

Life is not beautiful or painful. It is both beautiful and painful, all at once and we can choose which attributes we will allow to fill our limited days.

To a large degree, satisfaction is a state of mind — the happy person is one who takes joy in their lot in life, whatever it might be. But Shabbat makes the work of gratitude a little easier, by insisting that we find ways to take pleasure in the world. Traditionally, one saves the finest things for Shabbat — the best wines, the choicest cuts of meat, the nicest clothes. But the satisfaction of Shabbat is not about what we consume, but how we live. On Shabbat, we are invited to refrain from talking about money or any other stressful topics and we are literally commanded to find joy and delight.

So, on a practical level, what might it mean to prioritize the value of satisfaction on Shabbat? Again, three possibilities.

  • Nap. In traditional sources, its actually a holy deed to nap on Shabbat — the delight of an afternoon snooze is a taste of heaven. Most of us though haven’t had a mid-day nap since we rolled out our little mats in preschool. But napping truly is a delight, and we should do it exactly because it can feel so indulgent to nap in a world where there are so many other important things that we have to do.
  • Eat. Hasidic masters imagined that when we ate on Shabbat, we literally were taking holy Divinity into our bodies (Likutei Tefilot 1:107) and while we might not share that theology, we can take a day of the week to revel in a delicious and tasty meal. I adhere to a fairly strict eating regimen six days a week, but on Shabbat, I allow myself to enjoy some treats from which I refrain during the week. This is the day for pleasure, and I’m going to keep this G-rated, but suffice it to say that eating is not the only bodily pleasure the rabbis encouraged us to take part in on Shabbat.
  • Sing. Pete Seeger, Beacon’s local sage of blessed memory, said “Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life…? Our distant ancestors, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody… or a crowd joins in on a chorus to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they know there is hope for the world.” The Shabbas table is one of the only places I can think of where regular people routinely come together to sing, whether or not we have “good voices.” This can be done — get a few copies of a traditional Jewish songbook or order a few copies of Rise Up Singing and sit around the table and sing together — sing loudly, sing poorly, sing with rhythm or without — but sing together, because the strangers around the table will become your friends when you join your voices together.

That’s it — be still, be connected and be satisfied.  That’s Shabbat. I hope these three principles will allow us to do that in a way that makes sense to us, in the lives we live.

In my family, we are trying these principles on, seeing how they fit. They are, like many things are, a work in progress. Now, I know full well how to look things up in the Shulchan Aruch and find out what is assur, or prohibited, on Shabbat and what is not. But living in accordance with those answers absent a broader community that is asking the same questions can be lonely, and even painful. Baking challah on Shabbat is certainly traditionally prohibited, but it’s also a way for me and my wife to be connected to our children when we bake together on Shabbat afternoon. Hiking on Shabbat involves carrying things like maps and water bottles, which is absolutely traditionally prohibited, yet being in the forest on Shabbat is a way for me to find a stillness which often eludes me.

My own practice is evolving as I move from a framework of rules, laid out in an ancient book which demands my obedience to a framework of principles, which guide me as I try to rediscover a path away from the relentless demands to produce and consume. I hope that these principles will allow each of us, each in our own way, to do that.

Now, these principles — be still, be satisfied, be connected — will not provide easy answers to the questions that inevitably come up. If Rebecca is planning on upholding the value of connection by meeting friends for a walk, but won’t make it to the meeting place on time, should she betray the value of stillness by racing to meet them? If she misses them, will she betray the value of being satisfied? I don’t know and more than that, I can read all the law books in the world, but I can’t know, because I’m not Rebecca. She is going to have to decide what is most important to her in that moment. These principles are not meant to take the place of individual decision making; they are meant to give us a language and a framework for making decisions so that Shabbat can nourish us.

The great Hebrew writer Ahad Ha’Am once said that more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. May we all find ways in this coming year to find our own ways of keeping Shabbat and of allowing this most precious gift to keep us sane, whole and connected.

This teaching was originally given on the second day of Rosh Hashona 5779 at Beacon Hebrew Alliance

About the Author
Brent Spodek is rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, New York. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. He previously served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Brent has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, and by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as "a rabbi to watch." Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a masters in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College and their two children, Noa and Abraham.
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