Making Shabbat: Protest and Resistance | Congregation Beth Am

Making Shabbat: Protest and Resistance

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
March 3, 2017

Once upon a time, a king sent his son upon an errand. He gave the boy a coin and an empty flask, saying, “Go to the shop of a certain merchant I esteem. Give him the coin and fill this flask with the rich and precious oil he will give you.” The boy set out with good intentions, but on the way he dropped the flask and broke it. Then he lost the coin.  He wandered around aimlessly for some time, then finally returned home, tired and embarrassed. The king gave him another coin and another flask. And this time he said, “Please – take care that you do not lose these as you lost the others.” And the boy set out once again, in search of the precious oil.

Believe it or not, that’s the end of the story. Just as the boy’s new quest begins, the story abruptly stops. Now, we all know what it’s like to send someone to the store and have them come home without the thing we sent them for. But this is not a story about shopping. It’s a story from the midrash, and its subject is Shabbat  [based on Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 23:1; see The Book of Legends – Sefer HaAggadah, ed. Bialik and Ravnitsky, p.487].

It’s a parable about why there are two different commandments about Shabbat in the Torah. In Exodus [20:8] it says “Remember Shabbat – Zachor et yom ha-shabbat.” But in Deuteronomy [5:12] it says “take care of Shabbat – Shamor et yom ha-shabbat.” Why? Because the Israelites were first given the mitzvah of remembering Shabbat at Mt. Sinai, but soon afterwards they lost it in the wilderness. They gathered manna on the day of rest; they built the Golden Calf instead of honoring the seventh day. So God gave them the mitzvah again, in Deuteronomy, this time saying: “Take care of Shabbat – it’s easy to lose.”

And so it is. We’re given the gift of a day of rest every single week. But again and again, we lose it. It’s so easy to lose Shabbat in this Silicon Valley wilderness --- easy to drop it, to break it, to forget all about it. There’s so much to distract us. So many pressing tasks that demand our attention. So many competing options and compelling reasons to do something other than honor the seventh day. What’s the result?  We never arrive at the Sabbath destination. We miss out on the chance to fill our empty vessels with rich and precious oil.

Tradition attributes magical properties to Shabbat. Our Sages taught that the seventh day endows us with an extra soul – one that lifts our consciousness and heals our sadness, worry and pain. Shabbat meals are uniquely delicious. Our faces take on a special radiance and glow. We enjoy a foretaste of paradise, a preview of the perfected world. Even the departed in Gehinnom enjoy a reprieve from their suffering on Shabbat.

But we can’t just sit back and let the seventh day work its magic on us. The Torah tells us to make Shabbat – la’asot et ha-shabbat. If we want to experience the special qualities of this day, we have to construct it, fashion it, deliberately shape it in a particular way. Shabbat isn’t the kind of gift we just unwrap and enjoy. It’s the kind that says, “some assembly required.”

Why bother? Why put effort into “making” Shabbat – especially when it’s Friday night and we’re tired from a stressful week? And why focus on Jewish ritual when there is so much that’s wrong with the world right now, so many urgent problems that call out for action?

This past Monday more than 30 JCCs received bomb threats – the sixth wave of bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers, day schools and communal organizations across the US and Canada since the beginning of 2017. In recent weeks Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, NY were desecrated. A gunshot was fired into a Hebrew school classroom at an Indiana synagogue. Swastikas were found on playgrounds and etched or sprayed onto cars, signs and buildings in several cities, including right here in Palo Alto; and at universities across the country, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, San Jose State, Santa Clara university and our Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College. Since January, there have been more than a hundred threats to the Jewish community. And we’re not alone. Hate crimes against African Americans, Muslims, other minorities, and immigrants topped 1,000 during this same period. Last week a young engineer from India was murdered by someone who thought he was Iranian, screamed racial slurs at him and said, “Get out of my country.”

It’s frightening and worrisome – seeing this hatred crawl out of the dark shadows where it’s been lurking and come out into the open. We feel called to stand against the rising tide of bigotry, resist the ugliness that threatens all that’s best about America. And so we should. In fact, here at Beth Am we’re putting together two rapid response email lists – one that will focus on addressing anti-Semitism and one that will focus on other issues of tzedek and social justice. Check out our website or the flyer being handed out tonight, and sign up if you want to join the resistance.

But there’s another way to join the resistance, as well, and it’s called Shabbat. Shabbat – the day of rest -- is not just a wise Jewish recipe for self-care, stress management and a balanced life – though it is all that, and that’s important.

Shabbat is a declaration of values. It shows what you stand for and affirm and invest yourself in. On Shabbat we prioritize human relationships over commerce; people over electronic devices; savoring experience over running around trying to do more and more.

I’ll put it more forcefully. Shabbat is a protest. It’s an act of resistance. We resist a superficial culture in which your worth is determined by the color of your skin or the size of your paycheck.  We create instead a day on which we all come together as equals for shared study and prayer; a day on which all are welcomed, honored and valued; a day on which we talk about the things that really matter in life; motivate ourselves to do better; focus on cultivating goodness and generosity in ourselves and our community.

We resist a culture obsessed with buying and selling, in which we’re urged to sell and promote ourselves, and promised that happiness comes from acquiring more stuff. We create instead a day focused on appreciating what we already have; a day on which we consciously savor the pleasures of life – a warm bath, clean clothes, good food, a good book, a good shlof (a good snooze), the beauty of the natural world, time with family and treasured friends, intimacy with the one we love.

We resist a culture dominated by the tyranny of hurry:  too much to do and not enough time to do it; incessant busy-ness that consumes adults and kids alike; text messages and tweets rather than thoughtful conversation; sound bytes and slogans rather than a reasoned engagement with issues; life lived on the run and the demand for instant gratification that leaves us drumming our fingers and cursing at the red light, or frantically pressing the “door close” button on the elevator in a futile effort to save ourselves another five seconds. We create instead a day on which we consciously slow down, renewing our body and our spirit, replenishing our zest for life; a day on which we step back from doing and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, and how we might want to do things differently.

We resist a culture ruled by competition and fear and aggression – where those who are different are perceived as threats; where we shout at each other rather than strive to understand; where it’s every one for himself and there’s not enough to go around; where there are winners and losers and your success comes at the expense of mine. We create instead a day on which we honor human dignity and affirm our unity, our belonging to one another; a day on which we consciously practice peace, strive for harmony, reach out to those around us and invest our time in strengthening our connections. Millennia ago our Sages taught that one should not go out on Shabbat carrying instruments of violence, for this day is devoted to shalom [Talmud Shabbat 63a]. And Harold Kushner writes: “When the Torah commands us not to light a fire on the Sabbath, one commentator goes beyond the literal meaning of those words and takes them to refer to fires of anger and jealousy. Don’t shout on the Sabbath, he advises us. Don’t argue or get into fights. Don’t raise your voice. That violates the Sabbath rest as much as actually starting a fire does.”

So how do we “make” Shabbat? How do we enact our resistance, declare our protest, express our true values?  Halacha, Jewish law, gives us detailed guidelines – but too often we perceive them as forbidding and constraining; a long list of everything we’re not allowed to do. It helps to think of them instead as clearing a space for freedom. Every time we choose to say no to one behavior, we open up room for something else. If we decide we’re no longer going to shop or use the computer or run errands on Shabbat, we create the opportunity to structure our day in a different way, to fill it, carefully and selectively, in ways that promote joy and love, rest and peace.

Tonight our congregation joins Jewish communities all over the world in celebrating Shabbat Unplugged – a time to unplug from those ubiquitous buzzing and beeping devices and plug into something better. To help you part with your favorite device for a little while, Beth Am’s Shabbat committee is giving you a special gift tonight: a cozy little sleeping bag for your cell phone. Let it snooze for a while – and discover all the wonderful ways you can enjoy the world without peering into a screen.

The folks who created Shabbat Unplugged encourage us all to adopt the Sabbath Manifesto: ten quick and easy ways to begin experiencing the magic of the seventh day. Here they are: Avoid technology. Connect with loved ones. Nurture your health. Get outside. Avoid commerce. Light candles. Drink wine. Eat bread. Find silence. And finally – give back. Practice generosity and kindness.

 Here are a few other ways to add to the holiness of the day:

Bring some Shabbat radiance to your face. Practice greeting people with a smile. Even strangers. Especially strangers. Notice them. Wish them shalom. Through your words and your actions, bring them shalom.

Instead of pushing your way briskly through the crowd when you’re leaving a Shabbat service or Torah study say, “After you,” and allow others to exit in front of you. Hold the door for someone.  If you’re in your car, wave graciously to the driver in the next lane and let her go first. These acts of courtesy will calm you and encourage others to respond in kind.

Practice slowness. Try walking more slowly, being slow to anger, slow to judge, slow to write anyone or anything off. Instead of immediately reacting to what you hear, put yourself on “pause” for several minutes. Take deep breaths.  [Some of the above is adapted from Addicted to Hurry: Spiritual Strategies for Slowing Down, by Kirk Byron Jones].

All of us, together, construct Shabbat. It’s the culture we create when we decide to take care of the seventh day, to make sure we don’t lose it in the wilderness, and wander around aimlessly ‘til the end of our days.  If we act together, if we help and encourage one another to stay on the journey, we can make our way to the destination promised by our tradition. We can fill our empty vessels with rich and precious oil. We can rest from our labors, heal our accumulated hurts and nourish one another with love and respect. We can fight back against the ugliness around us and have a little taste of paradise.

Today, just before Shabbat, a special delivery arrived at the Beth Am office – a lovely bouquet of tall white orchids. Along with it was a card that said this: “Dear members of Congregation Beth Am: We want to let you know that in these testing times in America, you have our prayers, our love and support. We stand to support you in any way we can. We look forward to your friendship and to building interfaith partnership with you in the local community. Shabbat Shalom from the Muslim community of Mountain View/Palo Alto Musalla.”

The world and all its problems will still be there on Sunday and Monday and all the days of the work week.  We’ll be there to meet those challenges with energy and commitment, standing with our brothers and sisters of all faiths. But Shabbat is the gift that only comes once; the day that renews us for the battles that lie ahead; that day that reminds us of who we want to be and the beautiful world we want to see. Let’s make Shabbat. Let’s make it beautiful --  together.


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