Torah: To stay connected, join the Shabbat counterculture


Leviticus 21:1–24:23

Ezekiel 44:15–31

I remember the evening with absolute clarity. Sitting around the Shabbat dinner table with me were my wife, my mother and our 1-week-old daughter, Rachel. As the soft glow of the Shabbat candles illuminated the room, Sandra and I raised our hands over the tiny head of our first-born child for the first time to bless her with the priestly benediction, a traditional Sabbath evening blessing for children. In the midst of a snowy East Coast winter, the beautiful Shabbat rituals of our Jewish tradition warmed our hearts.

We have repeated that custom at the Shabbat table countless times. The newborn baby is now a high school junior considering colleges, and the customs of our heritage have helped us mark the passage of time. The words of the blessing are powerful: “May God bless you and keep you,” it begins. These words, when transmitted with love and caring, connect us to our children, to our faith and to our God. In a way, it keeps us whole.

I have thought many times of the wonderful quote of Ahad Ha’am: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Yes, we Jews keep Shabbat, but in the end, these customs have kept us Jewish, kept us whole. Once a week, no matter what kind of week we’ve had, no matter what our level of observance, Shabbat gives us the opportunity to connect with the most important people in our life.

The Torah teaches us about sacred time, and in this week’s parashah, Emor, we learn about the special nature of the calendar. “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions,” God speaks to Moses in Leviticus 23:2. And before teaching Moses about the festivals, God instructs Moses about Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be sabbath of the Lord throughout your settlements” (Lev. 23:3).

What a revolutionary idea that was back in biblical times, and what a countercultural idea it is in our current society. In our incredibly hurried and demanding world, our attention spans grow shorter and shorter, while the number of items clamoring for our attention grows longer and longer.

As Judith Shulevitz wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz, “To love Judaism is to know how much the Sabbath matters. … What the Sabbath does to foster such social solidarity is simple. The Sabbath coordinates non-work time. It makes people stop working not only for 25 hours a week but for the same 25 hours a week.”

How wonderful it would be to have all the special people in our lives mark off the same time as special so that we could share it with each other. Judaism gives us the chance to mark off sacred time for each other every single week.

No matter how many directions the people in your lives seem to be spinning in, Shabbat comes around once a week to give us the opportunity to pause and reconnect with each other. What is also important is that it encourages us to be affectionate with each other. On Shabbat parents literally place their hands on the heads of their children and bless them, perhaps adding their own special words to the priestly benediction. And partners take a moment to invoke words of our tradition for each other, adding a few loving words to make the particular moment special as they embrace. These affectionate rituals bring us together, and they just might keep us together.

I resonate to the words of Ruth Brin in the poem “Sabbath Prayer”: “God, help us now to make this new Shabbat. After noise, we seek quiet; after crowds of indifferent strangers, we seek to touch those we love … We break open the gates of the reservoirs of goodness and kindness in ourselves and others; we reach toward one holy perfect moment of Shabbat.”

May the traditions and spirit of the Sabbath add holiness and meaning to our existence, as we add depth and meaning to our week. And may the call to live according to the inherent holiness in time bring us a sense of shlaimut, of wholeness.