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The chronicles of a bad Jew

That week I was supposed to observe Shabbat for the first time in my life -- and failed
Illustrative. Shabbat dinner.
Illustrative. Shabbat dinner.

In the build-up to this year’s Shabbat Project — a South African-born, internationally loved annual event which brings together Jews from all walks of life to keep Shabbat — I’m reminded of my experience during the same event last year, when I was asked to observe Shabbat for the first time in my life.

Actually, I was asked not only to keep Shabbat, but was also commissioned to write a piece about it. Yet I failed. I did not successfully “honor the Shabbat queen.” And so, in a bid to avoid editorial panic and professional discord, I proposed that I write a piece about my failure to keep Shabbat.

What would my angle be? Apathy? Defeat? Negligence? Disappointment? Internal strife? Angst? The flabby human condition? All worthy literary themes to be sure – just ask all the old white men who have enjoyed celebrated writing careers over past millennia. But, the answer in large part is to be found elsewhere.

In other words, in bearing my apathetic soul in this space, I am going to evade personal responsibility, because my reasons for failure speak to the very essence of our times. In short, the demands of the modern world of work render Shabbat-like rest so necessary, and yet simultaneously so difficult to indulge.

Why did I fail? Deadlines. I am a freelancer with a sizeable workload. Time always runs out. I spend my waking and sleeping hours juggling a billion daily demands from a motley and marvelous crew of clients. And, I frequently find myself wrestling with existential angst over the much-vaunted work-life balance the millennials would have us believe is the hallmark of a good life well lived. But freelancer or not, this is the zeitgeist of the day. Work is king; personal pursuits are secondary. The profit machine of the latter-day capitalism cookie monster must be fed.

Here’s what I realized this Shabbat — or rather, saw with the sharpened clarity that only earthly human failure can bring. All of this toil and personal neglect leaves us impoverished. Mandated rest recognizes the very essence of what it is to be human: the failure to truly self-moderate is built into us all as mere mortals. But we need rest — intellectual, psychic, emotional, spiritual, physical repose. And the more institutionalized it is, the more likely we are to honor it.

Now, I know I’m not revealing anything new here. So many before me have made this observation. Entire movements are built around this understanding, and Judaism and its forefathers couldn’t be clearer on the matter. But yet, the inner cultural workings of most of our contemporary societies still fail to budge, in spite of the fact that most of those who populate its structures from bottom to top recognize this gaping hole. (Again, we have arrived at a call for socialist revolution. Oops!)

While I failed to keep Shabbat, I did manage to take part in some Shabbat-like behavior.

This mainly took the form of a generous round of Shabbat meals in the company of old and new friends. These provided a sturdy reminder that hospitality and social connection also provide respite, and are instrumental to the ways Jews have practiced Shabbat for time immemorial.

And so, in summary, the revolution will not be televised. Because I didn’t lead you into revolution. And it’s Shabbat, so the TV should be off.

About the Author
Marion Isaacs is a writer, researcher, documentary producer, and curator who lives, works, and eats (well) in Johannesburg.
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