Shabbat and 8 Seconds

So, this has been a difficult time in our community – we have experienced losses, very difficult ones.  

My close friend who is fighting cancer has been in town seeking experimental treatment.  

There have been suspected attempts of arson at local Chabad houses.  

Arson damage to exterior of Chabad Jewish Center of Needham (photo by WBZ-TV) May 16, 2019

What has been heartening is how many people have reached out to those coping with a loss and suffering from illness – bringing food, paying a shiva visit, listening, just showing up, asking what they can do to help the security situation.

Amidst all this, we were blessed to have a joyous event, this week – albeit a mock joyous event to celebrate: our annual mock wedding on Wednesday evening.  

For many years, we have culminated our year of learning about lifecycle events in 6th grade and now, in 7th grade with a mock wedding. Emphasis on the mock – since there is the famous case of the teens who were accidentally married at a Jewish school, necessitating the need for a not mock, but real Jewish divorce! We are always looking to avoid to divorce anyone as a teenager; it can lead to some awkward first-date conversations in college….

Temple Emunah members, Kate and Ailsa Hermann-Wu, under the huppah (May 31, 2009)

While we have held same-sex weddings for a decade here at Emunah, we have never held a mock same-sex wedding.  

And so we did.

It was joyous and wonderful, and to be honest, not such a big deal; demonstrating how far we have come as a community. This week was the 15th anniversary of same-sex marriage becoming legal in Massachusetts, our seventh graders have not known a time when marriage equality did not exist.

There was one moment in the ceremony that I did not anticipate.  Sometimes at weddings, I ask guests to turn off their cell phones and I asked everyone to do that on Wednesday. Suddenly, one of the grooms standing right with me under the huppah took out his cell phone to turn it off.


We all laughed.

It was pretty funny, but beyond the humor, was the reality of how ubiquitous cell phones have become.  It has become harder and harder to disengage from them. More and more people cannot keep them off even for a few hours.

I would kindly ask that we – all of us – guests and members try to refrain from using them in services and at kiddush today on Shabbat.  While it may seem different, the kiddush luncheon after the service is connected both to the service and Shabbat and it is time when we do not take or show pictures.  If you are having an emergency, then please step outside the building or into a private room, or a restroom to use your device.

Recently, I have found myself in meetings when one of the participants is simply glued to her or his phone, texting away as if the rest of us are not there.   

This is having a negative impact on our ability to carefully listen to each other, to developing and deepening our relationships.

* * *

One of the antidotes to this phenomenon is Shabbat.  For me, this is the most liberating day of the week. It is a great gift to spend one day without my cell phone.  Shabbat affords me time to truly be present with people, to focus on their faces and their body language, to listen closely.  It forces us to be alone with our thoughts, even to be a bit antsy, to be even a little bit bored, as you might be this very moment.  In human history, there have been few developments as impactful as Shabbat.

You can imagine what it meant to a servant who worked day after day without end to be given one day off – once out of each seven days.  

Cast of Servants from ITV’s Upstairs, Downstairs (1974-1975) on Masterpiece Theater (PBS) Front row l-r: Angela Baddeley (Mrs. Bridges), Gordon Jackson (Hudson), Jean Marsh (Rose) ; Rear row (l-r): Christopher Beeny (Edward), Jenny Tomasin (Ruby), Jacqueline Tong (Daisy), Karen Dotrice (Lily) and Gareth Hunt (Frederick)

This not only gave his body and mind a break, but also transformed this person’s self-worth, seeing themselves as having value.  This began a long and slow arc towards greater justice that has been taking place over millennia.

This notion of Shabbat, the Sabbath not as a luxury, but as a necessity helped revolutionize the world as we know it and I believe it can do that again today, in our hi-tech, rapidly transforming world.

* * *

Parashat Emor, this week’s Torah reading presents two types of holiness – one dealing with holiness in space: the physical elements that were utilized in the ancient sacrifices and its rites that the Kohanim performed and the second dealt with holiness in time: the holidays.  

While numerous civilizations had created holidays and celebrations that marked the seasonal changes each year and even the monthly lunar cycle, this was a leap forward to move sacred time from once every thirty days or more to once every seven.  Shortening the wait for a celebratory moment by 80% transformed ancient Israelite civilization. Through its expansion into the rest of humanity though Christianity and Islam and the Western world, Shabbat created a regular sanctuary in time.

While it totally changed the life experience of the average person in the world over the last few thousand years, today we may need it even more.  

Our brains are being rewired – we have shorter attention spans.  My favorite study about this is “the notoriously ill-focused goldfish” who can maintain attention and focus and gaze for about 9 seconds which was the same as people 10 years ago.  But, in 2015, people’s attention had dropped to 8 seconds and this decline continues, while the goldfish’s attention remains unchanged.

We need a day to stop and remember how to pay attention, real attention.

* * *

Our Torah reading emphasizes this idea.  The Torah calls the holidays “mikra’ei kodesh,” appointed days of holiness “asher tikra’u otem,” which you shall designate as holy.  

What does this mean?  That WE should designate them as holy?!?

To our rabbis, it meant that the Sanhedrin, the highest legal and judicial court would decide when exactly the holidays were to occur since they were based on when the new moon fell.  Therefore, people would decide exactly when these holy days were to be kept. This symbolized the partnership between God and Jewish people.

But the first holiday mentioned does not fall into this category.  It is not one based on the lunar cycle!

It is Shabbat!  

You cannot tell today is Shabbat – it is a day that is not related to the lunar cycle and we know it purely because of human decision and tradition.

This teaches us that Shabbat is the model upon which all other time is structured.  This cessation of work functions as the anchor that allows us to experience rest in our lives.  The placement of Shabbat in this listing of all the holidays is instructive. It is first as it creates the paradigm that all other holidays seek to emulate.  

* * *

But it is not easy to keep Shabbat – especially in its maximal form.  For many, putting aside electronics for an entire day would be far too challenging.  So this morning I want to offer a different approach.

(photo in Public Domain from Wikipedia)

Franz Rosenzweig, the 20th-century Jewish philosopher whose ideas were popularized by our Emunah member and Brandeis professor, Nahum Glatzer, was once asked if he put on tefillin; instead of saying no, he said: “not yet.”  He was still exploring, growing in his understanding of the tradition and he did not want to close himself off to aspects of the tradition.

I would commend to us all the “not yet” approach that invites us in to taste this great smorgasbord of tradition, even if we are not ready to commit to the whole meal.

Perhaps refrain from shopping on Shabbat, even if the entire day cannot be devoted to rest.

Or try incrementally to take a break from electronics on Shabbat, gradually adding time over time.

Like meditation, exercise or learning to play an instrument — gradually increasing is a way to ensure success.

* * *

(photo from Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

Eric Fromm, the prominent psychoanalyst, reminds us that we also rest on Shabbat because God rested on that first Shabbat.  Why? Not because God was tired. Rather, because “great as creation is, greater and crowning creation is peace.” God must rest because God “is free and fully God only when he [the Divine] has ceased to work.”  So human beings are fully human only when we do not work, when we are at peace with nature and our fellow human beings.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.