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Shabbat as social action

The day of rest reminds me that changing the world begins with improving myself
Illustrative. Shabbat candlesticks. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative. Shabbat candlesticks. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In college, I was an activist.

I organized, I protested, I rallied, I yelled, I held up signs for causes I believed in. And in my free time, I put up posters, passed out leaflets and wrote op-eds to try to encourage others to care too.

Activism became my passion, my philosophy, my social circle, my world view.

It changed me and impacted the way I lived. From the books I read to the foods I ate to the products I bought (or didn’t buy). It was the first thing in my life that I invested my whole being into.

But after years of working towards social change on a variety of fronts (Free Tibet, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, sweat shops, environmental issues and more) it also wore me down. Overwhelmed me. At times, even depressed me.

When your eyes are open wide to the many problems of our world, when you become a semi-expert in detecting the ills of society all around you, it’s hard not to feel this way.

Wherever I looked, I saw something wrong. Another thing that humans messed up. Another problem to try to fix. Another rally to attend to try and shake up the world from its slumber.

And even though I knew that social action was my passion and the right thing to do, I also knew this way of living was not sustainable.

And then, at the age of 20, I discovered Shabbat. And everything changed.

I became a new kind of person. And a new kind of activist.

Suddenly, there was a bigger picture. A different picture. A larger context. And a different way of working towards social change.

Connecting to Shabbat was the gateway that led me to further exploration of my Jewish roots and eventually led me to choose a lifestyle based on the rituals and laws of Judaism. And as I learned more about what the Torah contained, I started to understand that Judaism’s long list of do’s and don’ts was really a carefully designed system whose end goal was to radically and completely change the world we live in. To bring about a time when all of humanity would live with increased compassion and heightened spiritual consciousness.

With this understanding, I realized that Judaism was essentially an activist movement — possibly the greatest to ever exist. Because Judaism saw social change not only as taking place at organized events like protests and marches and rallies, but saw the work of improving our world also, if not essentially, as a daily, even hourly, even minute-to-minute task. As Jews, we were meant to be activists in every moment, perpetually confronted with opportunities to positively impact the world around us.

And, at its epicenter, was Shabbat. The Jewish day of rest that is probably the most radical of all Jewish laws and customs. And the most essential to social action.

Shabbat comes to remind us that there must be a time when we stop and simply rest. Stop doing all the things we constantly, regularly, routinely do during the week. The never-ending to-do lists, the perpetual “one more thing” we just have to get done, the constant running to and fro, even if they are directed towards social change and global improvement. It allows us to retreat into a state of slowed-down existence so that we can restore our energy and our drive to keep on doing the work that needs to be done in order to make our world a better place.

Shabbat is a time to humble ourselves and remind ourselves that it’s not all about us. That the world can actually exist without our constant intervention and interference. That we are but one piece in a bigger puzzle, playing but one part in a large cast of characters. One day a week of reduced doing can help us to contemplate that bigger picture that we humans are a part of and, as a result, better understand our unique place in it all.

Shabbat is a time for personal reflection. To take an honest look at ourselves. Evaluate ourselves. Lovingly judge how we are doing. And then make adjustments to better align our own personal thoughts, speech and actions with the kind of world we want to see and are trying to bring about. To make sure that who, how and what we are are indeed a reflection of the change we want to see in the world. To remind ourselves that it’s not just about trying to get the world “out there” to change, but that our own self-improvement is crucial to the process of improving our world. As we strive towards fixing the imperfections in our own selves, we contribute to the fixing of our imperfect world.

Throughout Shabbat prayers we attest to the fact that Shabbat is a “zecher l’ma’aseh Bereishit”: a reminder of the act of Creation. These three words contain the deepest secret of Shabbat and its connection to social action. As human beings, we are prone to forget. From where our car keys are to why we’re here in this world and why there’s even a world at all. Shabbat calls upon a distant memory of the very beginning moments of Creation, one that is deeply embedded in our psyche, to reconnect us to the original vision for the world. In remembering how the world was meant to be, and could be, we are reminded of what we can do to actively take part in the process of tikkun olam, fixing the world.

In Kiddush on Friday night we say that Shabbat is a “zecher l’yitziyat mitzrayim”, “a remembrance to leaving Egypt” What’s the connection between Shabbat and the Jewish exodus from slavery around 3500 years ago? Among other things it “utilizes” Shabbat as a weekly reminder that our people’s past suffering should inspire us to be aware of the suffering of other people in our world today. That in the hustle and bustle of our weekday realities, we shouldn’t be blind or deaf to those that are being oppressed, persecuted or mistreated. That being Jewish is a balancing act between strengthening and caring for Am Yisrael and keeping an eye open to the world to see where we can help others as well with their sufferings and struggles.

In college I came to the realization that those of us in the activist community, by definition, were always fighting against something; against what we deemed wrong or evil, angry at the rampant injustice in society. But it was a rare moment when we stopped to celebrate what we actually wanted to see in the world and what was already good. Shabbat forces us, every single week, to do exactly that. To stop the yelling and the marching, the social media posts and our critiques of society, and to notice that which is already beautiful, inspiring, complete, and whole in the world. To give thanks for what we have and to recognize the abundant blessings all around us. Shabbat trains us to have a “good eye,” seeing the good all around us, which in turn helps us to not be consumed or paralyzed by the brokenness of our world and to strengthen our hope that one day the darkness that still exists will be transformed to light.

This idea is summed up by a line in a popular Shabbat song that says Shabbat is “may’ein olam ha’bah,” a taste of the World to Come. On a spiritual level, it gives us a sense, a hint, a glimpse of what the world will be like when everything has already been fixed and corrected. It’s as if Shabbat comes from the future once a week to tell us, “Yes, we will get there and here’s a sneak-peak of what it’ll look like.” This has tremendous potential to keep us on the path, not give up or give in and strengthen our belief that, yes, one day we shall overcome.

Shabbat, we see, is the perfect “day-off” for activists from their regular activism. Take a break. Have a rest. Celebrate the good. But more than that, Shabbat is a powerful “day-on” that allows us to affect the world in different, more subtle ways, in more reflective, personal and spiritual ways. And realize that a weekly step back from our everyday actions may be, in fact, the greatest thing we can do for the world.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh moved to Israel from New York in 2004 and has been working in the field of Jewish and Israel Education for over 20 years. In 2020 he founded @Israel to share his love and passion for Israel with students, schools and communities around the world through his online classes, courses and virtual tours of Israel. Akiva is also the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (, a compilation of essays that gives an inside look at the unique experience of making aliyah and the journey of acclimating to life in Israel. He also created a social media platform called "Vegan Rabbi" through which he teaches about Jewish teachings related to health, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. Akiva lives in Pardes Hanna with his wife Tamar and their four kids.
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