For Our New Year: Try Shabbat | Congregation Beth Am

For Our New Year: Try Shabbat

By Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit on
September 10, 2018

Ever go on line and see those ubiquitous click bait headlines?  The ones that are hard to ignore even as you know you are entering a rabbit hole of time waste and anger.   Depending on our hobbies and habits, we all get different ones and it’s hard to stay away.  Here are some of mine. New report on the top 5 best infields ever.  These 11 tips to get your toddler to listen to you.   How to lose 15 lbs by tomorrow.  Palo Alto homes under a million dollars.  1 trick to change your attitude and connect with your friends and family.  

The New Yorker, a few years back, had an article that retrofitted the twentieth century’s most newsworthy events with modern, internet-style headlines. 1912 - 6 Titanic survivors that should have died.  1948 - 5 insane plans for feeding West Berlin you won’t believe are real.  1969 - This is the most important photo of an astronaut you’ll see all year.   1999 - this one trick to prevent your Y2K disaster.

There is real research about why we love these list so much. According to a study cited in Wired magazine  “lists do a number of things extremely well from a cognitive standpoint, including helping us "face infinity and attempt to grasp the incomprehensible."   Pretty weighty.  Guess what, religion has them, too.  I made these up - so let me know what you think.  The number one god to worship when you leave Egypt.  What did these 12 spies find in the promised land.  Seven years of work and who was under the wedding veil.  10 hacks to improve your life - carved in stone.  

One more:  “One idea simple enough to be understood immediately and overpowering enough to be remembered forever.”  (Rabbi Larry Hoffman)  Any guesses on what that idea might be?   It happens each week?  It’s pure delight for anyone who observes it?  It’s been the stabilizing force of the Jewish people since biblical times?  That’s right Shabbat.  The anti-clickbait.  Or as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it - “a cathedral in time.”  

So on this Rosh Hashanah, the first day of our year, a sermon about the most ordinary and extraordinary of Jewish holidays. Shabbat - the 24 hour period that begins on Friday evening that has sustained and nourished our people since the beginning.  In fact, so central to Judaism is Shabbat that we first encounter the idea during creation.  As Genesis says:  “With the seventh day God ended the work of creating, resting on the seventh day, with all the work completed.  Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, having completed the work of creation.”  (Genesis 2)

Since that moment Shabbat has been the central thread of Judaism.   You probably know the words of Ahad Ha’Am:  “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”  Shabbat observance is the fourth commandment we received on Sinai -  a marker of the covenant between God and the Israelites.  Ever since then, it’s been a guiding force on how we live our lives and how we treat others.  From the book of Deuteronomy we are told not only do we deserve a day of rest - but everyone needs to rest.  Man and woman, sons and daughters, slaves and strangers.  Even our animals get a day of rest to imitate what God does on the seventh day. 

Shabbat is so important to Jewish living that our calendar centers around it.  In Hebrew there aren’t named days of the week like monday or tuesday, it’s simply day one, day two, day three that lead right up shabbat.  Look at an actual Jewish calendar - most of the week is blank, but on Friday or Saturday it’s filled - telling us what the torah portion is or what time is the traditional candle lighting or havdalah.  It’s almost saying: nope no appointments today.    

But more than anything Shabbat exists because we need shabbat.  When we observe and honor shabbat we are better friends, better spouses, better children and better parents.   We eat better, we study more, we are more apt to give back to our community.   These things are true not just for that day but for the entire week.  As Rabbi Heschel says:  “What we are depends on what the sabbath is to us.”    (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath)

Furthermore, one reason Shabbat is so central to Judaism is the belief that a real shabbat allows us to be more effective during the week. This isn’t a new idea, in fact, the 15th-century Spanish commentator Isaac Abarbanel noted that we work incredibly hard during the week and then we have Shabbat so that when we return to the week, we are ready to “give it our all.”  (Rabbi Corey Helfand)

Now I know that many of us here today did not grow up with this notion of Friday evening as special and Saturday as a continuation of sacred time.  Those who took the Sabbath seriously were Orthodox; Sabbath observance therefore is foreign and filled with images of restrictions on what one cannot do. But this morning, I’m not concerned with laws or restrictions, what I care about is making Shabbat meaningful.  Drive on Shabbat, write on Shabbat, cook on Shabbat but the point is to create your own Shabbat as part of Jewish time -- remembering the week of creation, the dignity of work and the sanctity inherent in transforming one day into something special; something counter to the frantic pace of the rest of the week 

In the universe of Shabbat, we can be transported to a place of dreams, to an idealized world, a protected atmosphere, free from strife or anxiety, from competition or overreaching. If you are hesitant to begin because you’re uncertain as to how, know that you’re not alone, you’re part of a nurturing community that would love to teach you. Begin slowly, but recognize that the more blessings we say and the fewer errands we do, the more we will be sanctifying God’s name and recreating our lives in the Divine image . People ask, “Is there a place for spirituality within Judaism?”  An answer – we invented it. It’s called Shabbat.

And at Beth Am we want to be part of that Shabbat journey. We have two exciting new shabbat programs geared toward proving on-ramps for celebrating shabbat.  First - We want families to celebrate shabbat.  

I know, what you might be thinking … sure i’d love to observe shabbat regularly but getting to Beth Am isn’t easy, especially because I live in Menlo Park or Sunnyvale or La Honda.  Traffic is awful on 101 and 280.  It’s friday afternoon, I haven’t responded to half of the emails in my work in-box and my boss is pushing me to finish one more thing before the weekend.  I need to get to Trader Joes if we’re going to have any sense of a family dinner. There is dance and violin and little league and karate.  The laundry has been sitting in the dryer for two days because I haven’t gotten around to fold it.   Even if i do get there - my kids are going to be hungry, and there is no chance they are going to sit still.  I’m going to spend half the service chasing or shushing them. I might not know anyone else at services and you never really know what time you’ll be out of there.   …. I hear you, doesn’t sound like a day of rest to me. 

But let’s consider another Friday evening scenario.  Different from the one I just envisioned.  This time you leave the office and drive straight to Beth Am.  If you’re married you can meet your spouse and children there.  If you can, gather a little earlier so you’ll join us for some snacks and conversation.  Worried about dinner for your children - no problem, we’ll put out Mac N’ Cheese or other dinner options in a room nearby  When services begin at 6:15, we’ll all gather together for singing and candles and kiddush.  

At some point in the service, if your child needs a break, we understand, we will provide child supervision in a room nearby.  There will be staff and high school students to watch and play with your kids.  Furthermore, when you arrive at services - we’ll have some shabbat bags, complete with age appropriate activities to be used during services - ask one of the greeters or the board liaison and you;ll find them.  If your kids screams or cries during services - no big deal - think of it as a method to communicate with god.  After all, we are a no shush and a no scold synagogue. 

The service will we be done by 7:30. The sermons will be inspiring and thoughtful. The music will be engaging and participatory.  Adults have so few chances to sing, it’s nice to do so from time to time.  You’ll catch on to the melodies quickly and the service is transliterated so you won’t feel out of place if you’re Hebraically challenged.   The more you come the more comfortable you’ll be.   

Afterwards drive home for a leisurely dinner at your Shabbat table  -- invite a friend or two or even someone you don’t know all that well.  Enjoy candles, wine, challah, maybe some songs or create your own shabbat ritual. So what if it’s a pre-roasted chicken or local take out.  If you’ve been able to prepare even lovelier, but know that everything looks okay at a table lit by candlelight.  It just feels right to be together.  You know how many times during a normal week your family sits down to eat together.  Three times? twice? once? – never?

Michelle Shapiro Abraham the URJ Director of Youth Engagement writes.  “I struggle to reconcile my secular world with a deep yearning for the sacred and the serenity that complete rest promises.  Observing shabbat is not a black and white commandement for me; it is a whispered invitation that I strain to hear.  This is shabbat for the Reform Jew - not simple; not prescribed; not obvious. Yet like Jews everywhere, I do hear the invitation and find myself pulled toward the sweetness that Shabbat offers.” 

So Shabbat as lifestyle. Shabbat as antidote to the chaos of the week. Shabbat as re-discovery.  God envisioned the world as it is today and commanded us at least once a week to be together.  This isn’t a flashy new program - sure we’ve added some things - but it’s actually quite simple: be together on Shabbat.  For teenagers, and families with teenagers - I’m talking to you too.  We want to see you at services and I know it’s as important as ever to have dinner as families - its teenage rebellion as its finest.  I’m not a dictator, everyone deserves a “get out of shabbat free card” now and then - but there is something special about knowing that friday dinners are for families and our high schoolers can invite friends over or meet up with them after services or shabbat dinner.  

The more families that agree, the easier it will be for all of us and the better it will be for your children’s understanding of their Judaism.  This is an essential part of my family’s Jewish identity.  Erin, Ezra, Max and I love Shabbat, it’s the highlight of our week together. Often we meet friends at Beth Am or we have them to our house after services.   We light candles, we drink juice, we eat challah, we bless our children - it brings us closer to each other and marks the end of the week as sacred. 

And, while I realize each workplace is different and for some it’ll be easier than others, consider the incredibly positive Jewish statement you’d be making to your co-workers, your children and yourself if on Friday afternoons it was known that more often than not, you tried to leave a little early to be with your community.  So come on Friday nights -  it might feel awkward at first, but by the third or fourth time - you’ll have yourself a little bit of a habit.  My hunch is it’ll soon become sacrosanct, a ritual that you will not want to miss.  And while I can’t wait to see you at Beth Am, our intention in this effort is that shabbat routines are not only good for the synagogue, but good for the soul.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie the former president of the Reform Movement writes:   “But most important of all, Reform Jews are considering Shabbat because they need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating. Do we really want to live in a world where we make love in half the time and cook every meal in the microwave? When work expands to fill all our evenings and weekends, everything suffers, including our health. But families take the worst hit. The average parent spends twice as long dealing with email as playing with his children.”

I’ve focused a lot of this sermon on families - and no doubt a lot of this new shabbat effort is targeted at families - but I’m well aware that there are many at Beth Am who do not have children or whose children and families are far away.  I certainly don’t mean to turn you off or minimize your presence on friday evenings and saturday mornings.   In fact, I see you as a key part of expanding the delight of Shabbat at Beth Am.   I’m convinced shabbat is good for anyone of any age. 

There is a famous talmudic interpretation of a passage from the book of numbers that says:  “These are the children of Aaron and Moses,” but then names just those of Aaron, leading the Talmud to say (San 19b), “Aaron’s sons are considered as belonging also to Moses, because Moses taught them Torah. From this we learn that if you teach other people’s children Torah, it is as if you had borne them yourself.”   Maimonides writes, “If you teach people a single thing that raises their level of understanding, it is as if you bore them.”  (Rabbi Larry Hoffman)    I hope it’s not cliche - it does take a village to raise a child, everyone’s presence and open embrace on Shabbat aides in the culture we strive to create. 

If you come to shabbat without children maybe you can invite friends or even better strangers over for a shabbat dinner.  Relaxed time, good conversation you’ll be fulfilling one of the most vital commandments - hachnasat orchim - welcoming guests to our home and tables.  If you want go out to dinner after services at one of the restaurants on Cal Ave or in downtown Los Altos, go, gathering together with good friends feels very shabbat-y to me.   For those of you who are regular shabbat goers - we need your help in recruiting new people.  You know how wonderful Shabbat can be, help us share that gift with others. And, if you skip services and still celebrate a Shabbat among friends, we’ll miss you, but I promise we won’t take offense.

And one more group. Nothing makes the clergy happier than to look out and see our 20 and 30 year olds that have come here this morning to be with their families.   I know something of what your lives are like and we are thrilled that you’re here this morning.  There is a message in this sermon for you too - consider Shabbat.   If you live in San Francisco or Oakland, we’d love to help you find each other and congregations to connect with.  If you’re even farther away in LA or Austin or New York, guess what, there are warm, open and diverse communities in those places too.  Your clergy know of them and would be thrilled to make an introduction. 

And if you’re local, program number two, is specifically for you.  In October, we are starting a new monthly shabbat service specifically for our post-college, pre-kid 20 and 30 year olds.   I’m confident that our weekly services are right for you as well, so see this as a bonus.  Once a month we’ll gather at 8:00pm for services -- great music, good company, some different learning.  If you’re dating or married to someone not Jewish - bring them along.  I often find that for non-Jewish partners, Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts of Judaism. Immediately after our service, we’ll move to another room, where we can meet one another, eat together, and share the delight of shabbat.   Our next one of these services will be October 19th and then we’ll have them the 3rd Friday of the month. Shabbat as a lifestyle choice for everyone of all ages.

Up until this point - I’ve discussed friday nights - but no doubt Shabbat is a Saturday delight too.  And my intention is not to focus on a single hour or two of Friday evening.  Maybe you can join us for Shabbat meditation or Torah Study.  Or join the Beth Am cyclists that ride each Shabbat morning at 10:00 am.  Or even better, try out the Torah Minyan - a delightful and enriching service at 10:15 on shabbat mornings.   Or since you’ve been with us the night before … take some time to think about ways you can make Saturday a day of rest too.   Put your iphone in a drawer.  Play a board game with your children.  Take a hike. Try a new recipe  Read a book. Maybe stay away from Safeway and Amazon and Facebook.  Take a deep breath.  Walk around the block.  Have an idea for something at Beth Am to enhance a Shabbat experience?  We’re all ears.      

Observing Shabbat is hard, yet I know - Shabbat enhances every part of Jewish life - torah, israel, prayer, family, community, it’s the head and heart and there is nothing more essential to a Jewish identity than observing and honoring shabbat. More than anything else, as Professor Michael Kogan writes: “The sabbath is a link with our future as well as our past.  For if its observance provided a central focus for Jewish religious life in generations gone by, it can play the same role in the years to come.”   

Shabbat - A Cathedral in Time - what a stunning image.  Think about what it’s like to walk into a majestic cathedral. Think about the feeling you get. The awe. The history. The stillness.  We get to have that feeling each week.  It’s there for the taking - it’s bold, transformative and so so simple.  Why not give it a try?   (Rabbi Eric Yoffie)  (Wired Magazine)  (Rabbi Corey Helfand)  (Rabbi Larry Hoffman)

Books -

Gates of Shabbat, CCAR Press (quote from Michelle Shapiro Abraham)

The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel)

100 Great Jewish Books by Larry Hoffman on The Sabbath

A Shabbat Reader: Universe of Cosmic Joy  (quote from Professor Michael Kogan)  

Many thanks to my dad, Rabbi Jim Prosnit for use of his 5764 (2003) Rosh HaShana sermon in Bridgeport, CT. 

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