The first time we were in the USA as a couple was 30 years ago. One clear summer Friday evening we drove south from New Haven Connecticut to Jones Beach Long Island, to attend a James Taylor concert. It was a terrific show in a huge stadium. A memorable event and experience.
Afterwards we headed back home, happily singing along with our tape cassettes of James’s songs. I even belted out one of my favorites which reflected my personal situation in America as a kibbutznik after the army, with no academic education and no profession:
I’ve been in the army, I’ve worked on a farm
And all I’ve got to show is the muscle in my arm
Then we got stuck in a relentless traffic jam and stopped singing.
As the night moved into early morning hours, route 95N turned into a parking lot and as a result our good moods soured. The irritation and annoyance grew, and our pleasure with the show and of being together as a loving couple eroded. Our journey home continued into the wee hours of Shabbat.
Somewhere in the middle of the traffic jam we suddenly looked at each other, and without exchanging a single word we understood that erev Shabbat, at the end of an intense work week, is not for trips to concerts and sitting in traffic jams that tax body and soul, but for physical and spiritual relaxation. In that moment we committed to start keeping Shabbat.
I was reminded of that moment, when I was in conversation with a young woman who shared with me her doubts about continuing to keep Shabbat. After listening to her, I said, “Shabbat has taken care of itself for thousands of years, you don’t have to worry about Shabbat. The important thing is to take care of yourself. Our Sages said, ‘More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat – Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.’ Shabbat is a gift—even without any belief in God, adherence to a religious group, or observance of religion in general—and it would be a shame to give that up. Even if at this point in your life Shabbat observance isn’t for you, perhaps it’s worthwhile to at least keep it in your spiritual back pocket.”
Our second stint in the USA was for my MA studies in Boston, after which I got a job at Fidelity Investments. As I was about to start my brand-new job, I sought the advice of Natie, an experienced senior businessman who was also a Shabbat-observing Jew. “Tell me, Natie,” I asked with innocent apprehension, “how do you manage to keep Shabbat while working for a non-Jewish company in the USA? After all, the majority of the employees don’t keep Shabbat, and sometimes you have to work on Shabbat… does keeping Shabbat work against you?”
Natie smiled in surprise. “Sagi, put that concern out of your mind. After all, Jews have proven over the centuries that we excel in business despite – or perhaps because of – keeping Shabbat. You keep Shabbat, and Shabbat will keep you.”
Keeping Shabbat is a fundamental commandment in Judaism, but even putting that fact aside, it still has significant importance. A weekly day of rest, away from daily routine and errands and shielded from media, politics, etc., is a time to focus on family and body and soul. It provides physical and emotional benefits, benefits that have been investigated and enshrined over the centuries by intellectuals and scientists of all faiths.
In the third decade of the 21st Century, I believe that the importance of Shabbat is greater than ever. Shabbat provides a counterweight to today’s information overload, constant media bombardment, and the frightening disproportion between the rapid advances of technology compared with the limited human ability to continually absorb those advances.
So regardless of religion or faith, we need Shabbat more than ever.