When I was recovering from heart surgery, Shabbat was the hardest day of the week: Other days, I had TV to distract me from the pain and the late-night insomnia. On Shabbat, I stared into space at 3 am, alone with my thoughts. Before surgery, I had prayed to God that I would be well enough to be bored on Shabbat. I tried to remember that my prayers had been answered, but it is extremely difficult to feel gratitude, week after week.
Shabbat was also difficult for me during my singledom: No matter how fun the Friday night meal was, or how long it lasted, I was always struck by a profound sense of loneliness when the guests went home and I returned to my room. Sometimes I left my music on a 24 hour loop, just so I could hear the sound of human voices as I fell asleep, without having to touch any buttons or violate the laws of Shabbat.
Now, we are in a time period where Shabbat can be a day of loneliness for many people: The communal prayers and meals with friends have been replaced by confinement within one’s house. On other days of the week, TV may entertain us and distract us from the situation, but on Shabbat, we are forced to be alone with our thoughts. Generally, this can be a delightful part of Shabbat: Without the distractions of technology, we are free to ponder the workings of the universe, to pray deeply, and to have important conversations with ourselves. But given social distancing protocols, any day can now serve as a day to experience solitude. The only difference is that on Shabbat, we don’t have an option of breaking the solitude if we want to, by watching TV or by connecting with friends through our phone and computers. For those for whom technological connections have become a lifeline during this time, Shabbat may even be dangerous.
Those who are stuck home with kids face a different challenge: Instead of being the one day of family time, Shabbat is now the one day a week where they can’t use screens to help entertain children who are stuck inside all day.
In the past, I have often felt that the “negatives” of Shabbat were precisely what enabled the “positives” -the deep conversations with friends, leisurely meals, and the creation of a synagogue community. But now, I find myself bereft of the positives, but still bound by the negatives. A friend pointed out that there is still one important benefit: Shabbat is the one day we have without Coronavirus news. This provides a spiritual oasis in which we can restore our inner strengths for the week ahead. However, for those with relatives who have the virus, this lack of news can also be stressful, because it means no daily updates from their family.
So I think it’s important to say this: Shabbat might suck, for a while. It might not suck every week. Maybe some weeks, solitude will be glorious: You will raise your voice in song and read that book of poetry you never got around to, marvelling at the complex beauty of the universe. But other weeks, you might feel completely sad and alone.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep Shabbat. I believe I am bound to keep Shabbat even on weeks when it doesn’t feel meaningful. But also, I am trying to look at Shabbat right now as a placeholder for the future: I am keeping myself in the habit of keeping Shabbat now, so that when the world returns to “normal”, and I want to keep Shabbat again, I will still be in the habit of keeping Shabbat. I honestly believe that keeping Shabbat is so difficult, especially in an era where we are used to constantly using technology, that once a person stops keeping Shabbat, it will be nearly impossible to go back.
This Shabbat was a good Shabbat: I had lunch on my balcony with my husband, and we sang together while enjoying the sun. I felt extremely blessed, both to have a partner to share my solitude with, and to have a balcony.
Since it was the Shabbat before Passover, the topic invariably came up. I was reminded of the original Seder experience, during the Exodus itself: The Jews smeared the blood of the Paschal lamb on their doorposts, and stayed inside all night, waiting for the Plague of the Firstborn to pass. Then too, people were bound to their homes as they partook of the Passover meal, scared of the threat of death that was lurking outside. Yet they sat there, eating their matzah and believing, in the darkest of moments, that redemption would come.
This year, we will mimic the original Seder: We will stay inside our houses, eating matzah and worrying about the dangers beyond our thresholds. In doing so, we will be carrying out the precept to envision ourselves as if we ourselves had left Egypt. But part of the precept is not only envisioning the bondage, but also, adopting the hope that was part of the original Passover meal, and choosing to believe in a better future, even in the darkest moments. That is the strength of the human heart that lies at the core of the Passover story, and that is the tradition we must take with us to our Seder tables.
My wish for us all is that we are able to find that hope, and experience a true redemption from these dark times, just like our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.
Happy and Healthy Passover!