When the pandemic began, I missed the office, I missed restaurants, I missed travel, but most of all I missed synagogue on Shabbat. There is something deeply comforting about seeing the same people at the same time, in the same place, in the same seats each week. I especially love being at synagogue on a snowy winter day. During kiddish I would sit with members of our congregation, and watch snow fall through the large widows in our social hall while eating bagels and lox, salad, and cookies. It is an “all is right with the world” experience.
I began to observe Shabbat as an adult. As a child growing up in the United States in New Jersey in the 1960s, my family and I would go to shul on the high holidays, and I remember being curious about the people who were davening. I come from a secular family and observance consisted of going to synagogue to pay our respects on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’m not sure to whom or to what respect was being paid. To the synagogue? The holiday? The daveners? It certainly could not have been to the Almighty since He or She would expect more than the 15 or 30 minute visit.
My route to Judaism was circuitous with stops that seemed off track. I first took a turn into eastern religion which connected me at least with the idea of religious observance. As I became older my explorations directed me toward Judaism leading to many happy years of learning at B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, New Jersey.
While I fell in love with Judaism by learning from great Rabbis, I discovered the joy of community and Jewish spirituality from Shabbat observance. For one day each week, I learned how to put aside the things I did not feel I could live without — television, my smartphone, email, work and shopping. I let the world just be what it is. It was a day when I could allow other people to be just the way they are and just the way they aren’t.
During COVID, the synagogue building closed for a year and a half and services were live streamed, but it was not the same intimate, community experience. For a time Shabbat became a long, lonely day which just went on and on. It was especially hard in the summer. But I couldn’t unlearn Shabbat, so I lent myself to the task of being alone, taking walks, and reading. I adjusted. I read books I would never consider reading. I am on page 820 of Thomas Mann’s Joseph And His Brothers. I spend more quality time with my husband who is my COVID quarantine date. In the summer, I lie in a hammock, read and watch the trees. In the winter, when Shabbat comes early, I study Hebrew.
Shabbat observance enables me to enter the week with an extra layer of emotional and spiritual strength that is especially essential now. We are living in a period of immense division and uncertainty. It is hard to remain calm while the pandemic continues to endanger our health and disrupt daily life, and mask wearing, or vaccinations are divisive political issues.
I have a friend who said that in her wildest dreams she never thought that the stability of American democracy would be a source of real concern. But it is. From the moment of Donald Trump’s election to the pandemic, to the capitol riot, it has been one jaw dropping, stomach churning event after another.
The toxicity of our political life is fueled on social media, creating an alarmingly coarse culture where the loudest and harshest voices are amplified. It is hard not to react to all that is going on around me. My commitment during this time is to try to remain calm, carry on and find enjoyment in life.
Shabbat makes that possible. It is a day to slow down and reflect, a day of pleasure, a reminder that life is good. It is the one day a week that sustains the others. I wake up and realize that I don’t have to do or fix anything. In fact, I’m not supposed to. I can take my time. I can do nothing. The mild dread that I tend to experience when I wake up during the week is missing. Shabbat is a reminder that another way of being is possible.
It is a break. It is the ultimate mental health day.
During this time of turmoil and division, Shabbat is a reminder that there is an alternative to being upset. There is a world of peace that comes at least once a week if we lend ourselves to it.
I couldn’t live without it.