24 Sivan 5774 (after sundown)
I’ve just finished reading Abraham Heschel’s classic work The Sabbath (and I recommend it, despite the somewhat dated writing style). In it, Heschel points out that the Sabbath is holy because it is sanctified time, rather than a sanctified object. Time is an unusual idea, according to Heschel – it is not something that exists in any one place, nor is it attached to any one thing. Shabbat is important because it is time set aside to recuperate and recover from the daily grind of work and business, and to reconnect – with G-d, with our families and friends, with ourselves. Instead of having to travel to a specific place in order to reconnect, recuperate, and recover, we create a sacred time that can be observed anywhere.
That reconnection can be fatiguing and even intimidating if you’re not used to it. Most of us have seen the family at the restaurant with everyone’s nose buried in their GameBoy, their Kindle, or their iPhone. When was the last time you actually sat down and had a meal with your family, without the distractions of the game on the TV or the GameBoy in your child’s hands? When was the last time you actually spent an hour with someone just talking, with your phone set to “off” rather than “vibrate”? And if you did, did you really connect with them? Or was all the discussion about mundane things like the weather and the latest sports news?
I also finished Kushner’s Who Needs God earlier today. He refers to “the iPhone problem” as it was experienced in an earlier time – with the transistor radio as the interfering agent – as one of the ways we can be together in body and still totally separate in spirit. Before that, I’m sure that it was newspapers, magazines, and books that interfered both outside the home and in it, and at home there was also the TV and before that the radio as interfering agents between ourselves and other people. Kushner talks a lot in this book about loneliness, and how we miss our connection with others more than we realize we do. We compete, rather than connect. We objectify, rather than empathize. And as a result we end up with what Kushner, referencing Martin Buber, calls the I-It relationship, rather than the I-Thou relationship. We see others only as “how can I get something from them/how will they benefit me”, instead of seeing them as human beings with families, or health problems, or crises of faith, or worries.
The concept of taking an entire day “just” to rest is pretty foreign to me, as it probably is to most Westerners who weren’t raised Jewish. I know of about three Christian sects that make a point of Sabbath being an all-day thing, but that’s it. For most people, taking an entire day to rest sounds like a luxury. To others, it may even sound sinful. For me, a day off is ideal for catching up on work – answering student e-mails, for example. Planning my next class. Working on my budget. Organizing my desk. It’s work time, not play time – and certainly not rest time.
I’ve had Shabbat evenings on Fridays. I’ve been to a few Shabbat services at my temple on Friday nights, but the next morning I fell right back into doing what I needed to do in order to get work done – emails, grading, and of course endless Facebooking. I couldn’t seem to conceive of doing Shabbat not just on Friday nights but all day on Saturday, too. Even thinking of trying to have a full evening and day of Shabbat was nerve-wracking to me. What was I supposed to do with myself? Study? How, when I’m not supposed to write (because writing is creation)? Read? What would I do if I ran out of books to read (a perfectly possible scenario for me)? What about my students, and their e-mails, and the homeworks I have to grade, and the classes I need to prep? Heck, what about Facebook? How could I just not be there for a whole 25-hour period?
And what, exactly, would my kids and I – and my partner, once he arrived home – talk about, exactly? How would that look? How would that work? They’re not converting to Judaism – so one of my main current topics isn’t an option for table conversation. Talking about work is sort of not what I had in mind for Shabbat conversation. But what else is there to talk about?
Like the idea of taking a day completely off to rest, the concept of connecting in person is also increasingly foreign to most Westerners. “Connection” has become a term that refers to e-mail, websites, and blogging – and believe me when I tell you that I recognize the irony here, as I write about this issue on a blog. What we used to mean by connection, in-person connection, has become largely shredded away, as if we never needed it or wanted it.
So I didn’t think I could do it. I thought for sure I’d go mad with the tension of not doing anything productive, not to mention the guilt about the aforementioned emails and students. But I had to try. If I’m going to truly live as a Jew, this is part of it. So I need to learn how, right?
One of the things that Shabbat does is give us a holy time to see others as real people and human beings. I decided on Thursday night that I was going to make this Shabbat special, because my kids were going to be here. So I saw my doctor in the morning, I picked up my kids, ran my errands on Friday during the day, and then we prepared a real Shabbat meal. Even though the main dish just did not turn out right, it was salvageable without too many problems. I said the prayers before my older child and my partner came to the table (at their request – and I’m not about to push that on them), but my younger child decided to be there and participated with me as I sang the brachot and the Kiddush. We had even baked challah for the meal – grain-free, true, but it was still challah. We had a meal together as a family, we prepared it as a family, and we cleaned it up afterward as a family. At the table, each person shared something good that had happened to them in the last week. I haven’t had that much connection with my children in literally months.
This morning my younger daughter and I walked to the synagogue and found out that the Saturday morning Shabbat service included a bar mitzvah. Walking home, I felt such a sense of peace, just talking with my daughter, being disconnected from all my electronics, and feeling so connected to my kid and to the greater Jewish community. It was astounding. This afternoon, after I read for three hours from Kushner, my children asked me to play a game of Apples to Apples with them. Sure, it wasn’t entirely Shabbat-related, but in the spirit of spending time with my family, I dove right into it. I’m pretty sure HaShem didn’t mind.
I’m still not sure I can completely keep Shabbat the way the more-conservative Conservative Jews do. I’m not sure I can give up jotting notes down about things that I need to remember but which my somewhat distracted brain might otherwise forget, for example, or cleaning up my kitchen after a meal even if it’s still technically Shabbat by the clock and calendar. But I can’t deny I got something out of doing this. I didn’t quite make it to sundown, I admit, but when I did finally log into my computer about four hours before sundown, I found out that the e-mail and the students were still there. I was able to get the work that I needed to do, done, with a renewed energy and sense of peace that I’ve rarely felt even since I realized I need to convert. More to the point, I felt rested. I haven’t had that feeling in months, either.
So I guess the lesson I’m taking away from this experience is this: Being busy is fine – but being calm is necessary too, and making a sacred space and a sacred time for calm and study and meditation and connection is part of what we need, as human beings, to not just survive but to thrive.