Yom Kippur

Kol Nidre 5780 – The Transformative Power of Shabbat

From time immemorial, Jews have believed that previous generations of Jews were more knowledgeable and more pious than their own generation. The great rabbis of 1,000 years ago felt that the great rabbis of 2,000 years ago were superior because they lived closer to the revelation on Mount Sinai. 

Nearly 70 years ago, Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman, “giants” of the Conservative Movement of the 1950s, wrote the following:

One cannot serve a congregation for any time without being depressed and disheartened by the widespread disintegration of Sabbath observance among our people. This breakdown of one of the major institutions in Jewish life is too deep and too prevalent to be countered by preachment and exhortations. Sermons declaring the preeminence of Sabbath in Jewish life or extolling its spiritual beauty and social significance are politely received by our congregants but exert no influence on their practices or habits.

Other than the exact language sounding a little dated to our ears, that could have been written yesterday. And when I shared that statement at our Wednesday morning Nosh, Schnapps, and Halacha group a few weeks ago, someone commented, “and it probably also could have been written 200 years ago.”

Which is also true.

Despite having just shared that the great rabbis of 70 years ago said sermonizing about the Sabbath is a waste of breath, I’m going to have the great chutzpah to sermonize about the Sabbath tonight. But I’m not going to focus on what the earlier rabbis called the “spiritual beauty” and “social significance” of the Sabbath. I’m going to talk instead about the power of Shabbat to transform your life. And about how it did transform my life.

To some people, Shabbat may seem like a quaint idea.

Don’t work for 24 hours every week? Don’t do any chores? Don’t check my email? 

It’s a little bit of hubris that we think we’re all so much busier today than people were in the past. Top lawyers and business executives worked as many hours, had as many meetings, felt things were just as urgent, as they do today. In the late 19th century, the AVERAGE work week was over 60 hours per week. Yes, many people in demanding fields still work 60 hours a week. But a little over 100 years ago, almost everyone worked that much.

But of course, they didn’t have technology that intruded into the limited amount of free time they did have. But that just makes the need for Shabbat all the more urgent. As David M Weinberg put it in an article in the Jerusalem Post,

Only G-d could have known that we would regularly need a day of respite from technologies that beep, buzz, ring, ding, tweet and demand our attentions every minute. Shabbat is the only day of the week that no boss can bark, “I sent you a blog/email/post/text, or a Plurk, Skype, Vimeo, WhatsApp, Yammer, YouTube, or Ziczac message 15 seconds ago! Why haven’t you responded yet? I called you 10 times and left you five voice messages! Are you deaf?” Only Shabbat protects us from the crushing weight and the noisy mental distractions of the modern world. Only Shabbat’s manifold limitations on the self-exploiting machines of industrialized Western civilization allows for the emergence of an intellectual, spiritual and family space that is reflective and uplifting.  

It follows that if we’re super busy, the most precious thing we have is time.

But how do we spend that precious time?

  • The average internet user spends 2 hours and 22 minutes a day on social media. A different study found that people spend an average of 41 minutes a day socializing with real people. 
  • Most people spend far more time doing email than spending time with their children.
  • One fourth of the families in America eat dinner together less than three times a week; and when families do eat together, in 1/3 of the homes the TV is ALWAYS on.  Most people rarely have friends and family over for dinner other than on holidays or special occasions.
  • Jews in particular seem not to make as much time for God as people of other faiths: at least in America, compared to people of other faiths Jews are much less likely to pray on a regular basis (for example, 78% of Evangelical Protestants pray daily, versus 26% of Jews).

Shabbat is a wondrous antidote for all of these problems.  Shabbat calls on us to “put our money where our mouth is” when it comes to our priorities.  If you observe a traditional Sabbath, you will put your real friends ahead of your virtual friends, your children ahead of your email, and you will have the opportunity for deeper conversations with friends, family, and God than you’ve ever had before.

 “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”  These words of the early 20th century philosopher Ahad Ha’am express the significance of the day.  The most important day on the Jewish calendar is a day that comes around once a week.

Some people might argue, “what do you mean, calling the Sabbath the most important day on the Jewish calendar?  What about today, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?”  The proof of the traditional importance of the Sabbath is that the biblical penalty for violating the Sabbath was death.  The rabbinically mandated penalty for violating Yom Kippur was lashes.  Fortunately, we Jews no longer execute or whip people for failing to observe religious laws.  But we can still learn from this the supreme importance that the tradition has attached to the Sabbath.

Secular society acknowledges the importance of a day of rest.  Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” includes “sharpening the saw,” or personal renewal, as one of the seven habits.  Regarding activities that “recharge your batteries,” he says, 

“This is the single most powerful investment we can ever make in life—investment in ourselves, in the only instrument we have with which to deal with life and to contribute.  We are the instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time regularly to sharpen the saw…”  

The idea that we need rest and renewal so we can be more productive is a reflection of the Protestant work ethic, a set of values that may not be as popular today as they once were, but that still have a central place in the Western psyche. The Protestant work ethic values hard work, discipline, and frugality as the path to being a productive member of society. Therefore, Covey argues in favor of down time as a way to make you more effective, so you’ll be able to earn more money during the other days of the week.

But Jews don’t observe Shabbat so we can be more productive the rest of the week. Rather, we work so that we can properly celebrate our day of rest!  Shabbat is the goal, not the means to an end.  In our Friday night prayers, as we welcome the Sabbath, we sing sof ma’aseh b’machshavah techilah, “last to be created, first in thought.”  Just as a builder has a plan and a goal in mind before starting construction, God had Shabbat in mind when starting the process of creation.

Creation is one of the two central themes that the Torah associates with the Sabbath.  The other is the Exodus from Egypt.  There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah, one in the book of Exodus, the other in Deuteronomy.  In one we’re commanded to rest on the Sabbath because God rested on the Sabbath; in the other we’re commanded to rest as a reminder that we were slaves in Egypt. 

It’s truly ironic, but it’s by obeying at least the central rules of Shabbat that we can prove that we’re free, that we’re not slaves. Only a free man can say, “I’m going to take a day off, a real day off, without email, Facebook, Slack, Twitter, Telegram, Instagram, and other distractions, every week.” 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, 

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

Heschel also taught that the law clears the path for the soul. The rules that some might think of as restrictions, are the things that actually set our soul free.

Now you may think you’re too important and too busy to really disconnect for one day a week. There are too many crises that come up on a regular basis. I suggest unless you’re a doctor who has to be on call for medical emergencies, it’s a rare situation that arises after sundown on Friday that couldn’t keep until after sundown on Saturday.

No matter how busy or important your job is, I doubt it’s busier or more important than Jack Lew’s job was when he was serving as former President Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff. 

Lew said that being an observant Jew who’s shomer Shabbos never was an obstacle to his performance or his advancement. When he was Obama’s chief of staff, he lived walking distance to the White House, and if there was something sufficiently urgent he would walk to the White House. Obama told him:

You know this is a 24/7 world, you’ve worked in every important part of it, and you’re going to be the one who has to decide when it is something that you need to be here for on a Friday night or Saturday. It won’t stop – but you’ve figured it out before and you’ll figure it out now. I’ll never be the one who says, ‘You need to be here,’ so you better make sure you don’t forget where your line is.

There were times when Lew went to shul on Saturday morning and then walked to the White House and went to work. But he also said, “if you are prepared to let things go on without you, it [working on Shabbat] doesn’t happen anywhere near every week.” And that’s even in one of the most demanding jobs on the planet.

You may be thinking “all that Shabbat stuff is fine for someone who grew up with it, or someone’s who’s Orthodox.” Here’s a news bulletin: you don’t have to be Orthodox to enjoy Shabbat – just like Israel and the Western Wall, Shabbat is the heritage of all Jews, it doesn’t matter if you’re Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. We can each make Shabbat in our own way.

I think a lot of people assume rabbis are spiritual people who’ve been religious all their lives. While some rabbis are what we call “frum from birth,” people who’ve led intensely Jewish lives their entire lives, many of us nowadays are baalei teshuvah, returnees, people who may have been secular for a long time before turning to God and finding religion. I’m one of those baalei teshuvah.

For the first 40 years of my life I don’t remember EVER experiencing a traditional Friday night Shabbat dinner. My mother wasn’t Jewish. My siblings and I were converted as children because it was important to my father’s family. They were proud to be Jewish, and it was important to them that they were Jewish. Even though my grandfather helped found an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx they weren’t at all religious. I went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, but the only Jewish things we did at home was light Hanukkah candles and have a seder with the family. After my grandparents retired to Florida, we quit doing anything for the high holidays.

I came to the rabbinate after 20 years in the business world.  When I first started keeping Shabbat I was the Vice President of a semiconductor firm with over $100 million a year in sales.  It may not be White House Chief of Staff, but it’s a busy, demanding job. I admit it was tough for me the first time I told my boss I couldn’t get to an offsite meeting held on Saturday until over an hour after the sun went down.  But you know what?  I did it, and the CEO was quite understanding, and it wasn’t a problem. Often it’s the secular Jewish colleagues who have a harder time understanding someone wanting to keep Shabbat than Christian colleagues.

Our family started out following the suggestions in “The Gates of Shabbat,” a publication of the Reform movement.  We made Shabbat a “special” day, free of the usual round of chores and errands. We didn’t work, but if we felt like driving to a museum, or going out to lunch, we would.  After a few months we understood much better what Shabbat was about – an oasis in time, apart from the routines and concerns of the work-a-day world, a time for family and friends, good lunches and good books, mornings in shul and long afternoon naps – a day of rest, when we reclaim ownership of our souls.

Too many people think of the negative commandments, the things we don’t do when they think of Shabbat. What’s really important isn’t the “do not’s,” it’s the things we do. Have a nice meal with friends and family. The rabbis tell us we should make Shabbat special, and have special food and better wine than what we drink during the week. As a day of rest, you could say it’s a commandment to take a nap, and the rabbis say it’s a mitzvah to make love with your spouse on Shabbat. When I was starting on the path with keeping Shabbat I was like, “OK, so we’re supposed to have a good meal, good wine, take a day off, have a nap, make love. What’s not to like?”

Not only that, the Talmud teaches that everything is fixed for the coming year on Rosh Hashanah, including our income. Except for money we spend on honoring Shabbat and giving to charity – God gives us extra money for those things if we spend more. So there’s another reason to drink a better wine on Shabbat, God’s picking up the tab!

I’m not talking about this tonight because I hope to increase attendance at services on Shabbat. Not to disappoint my Shabbat regulars who’d love to see more people in shul, but going to the synagogue on Shabbat is NOT the most important feature of Shabbat, and it’s not why I’m talking about it tonight. I’m talking about it because it literally has the power to transform your life. When my ex and I started keeping Shabbat, and truly taking a day off, part of our blessings was “Wow God, what a great idea!” If I were to be struck by lightning and no longer believed in God, I’d still keep observing Shabbat. It’s the thing that gets me through a tough week, I know Shabbos is coming. 

There are three things that I would say are the real essence of Shabbat:

  1. Take a day off. A real day off. Don’t go to the office either physically or virtually unless it’s something that’s truly an emergency. Let people know if they need to reach you, they should do something other than send you an email because you won’t be reading your emails. And don’t do chores either. The laundry will wait.
  2. Make Friday night dinner a fixed feature in your week. No matter what’s going on, have all the kids home on Friday night. Be together as a family, invite friends over, encourage your kids to invite some of their friends over – they’ll enjoy it a lot more. And mark the transition from the work week to Shabbat with lighting candles and making a blessing over wine and bread.
  3. Make the day special. Make time for the things you say are important, whether it’s reading those books you’ve set aside, or going for a walk or bike ride with your kids or playing cards or playing catch. It may sound odd, but technically there’s nothing wrong with exercising on Shabbat. I like to use Shabbat as one of my physical rest days, so I don’t exercise on Shabbat, but if it’s the only day of the week you can get in a long run or bike ride there’s nothing wrong with that.

Naturally coming together in community at the synagogue on Shabbat can also add to the day; it’s a way to stay connected with community, and Judaism is a very community-oriented religion.

Speaking of community, Shabbat can be a way to combat the “Seattle Freeze.” I had no idea this was really a thing. I’ve spoken to a number of people who’ve shared that they’ve been here for a few years (in some cases quite a few), but haven’t really made friends yet – people who say they had no trouble making friends in other places. Inviting people you’ve met but don’t know well yet to a Shabbat meal is a great way to get to know people and help combat the Seattle Freeze. And it’s a great way to stay connected to the friends you already have.

When I started keeping Shabbat I found that concentrating all the chores on one day of the weekend – Sunday – and leaving one day free for rest and relaxation made the whole weekend much more restorative than the usual practice of doing some chores and some resting on both days of the weekend.

You can also add your own rituals to Shabbat.  One ritual I’ve added is going around the Shabbat table and asking everyone to share a blessing, something good that happened to them during the week. It can be something as dramatic as a new job or getting engaged, or something as mundane as a good meal or a nice run. Going around the table sharing blessings often takes the entire duration of the meal. It’s also a good way to get to know people if you have new people at your Shabbat table.

If it sounds interesting, but you didn’t grow up in a religious home and you’re not all that sure of what to do, there are Shabbat Guides with all the different blessings and procedures available at both the upper and lower entries to the sanctuary; if they’re all gone phone or email the office after the holiday, they’ll be happy to send you one. It’s also available on the synagogue website. I also recommend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, “The Sabbath,” as a great source for finding meaning in Shabbat.

Shabbat doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” experience.  When my ex-wife and I started observing Shabbat it was a somewhat gradual process, and it took several months before we found ourselves fairly naturally gravitating toward observing a full traditional Shabbat, including not stopping at the garage sales on the way home from the synagogue. Every family finds what works for them.

We’re gathered here together tonight on Yom Kippur, a day when we seek transformation, seek a fresh start. If there’s one spiritual practice you can take on that has the power to transform the quality of your life, that practice is Shabbat. My ex calls it “A 25-hour spa for the soul.” In these crazy and difficult times our souls need that respite more than ever.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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