Shabbat: Joys and Challenges

(words from a local Jewish studies teacher who plans to join our adult forum for a session … excerpt from a reply to Pastor Bernt’s questions about Sabbath)

Bernt, your astute question about the joys and challenges of practicing Shabbat brought much to the surface for me as I reflected on your email. Just about one week ago I heard a GREAT story from a Jewish studies teacher at [a Jewish day school] that is definitely apropos. She described the way Shabbat would commence for her family when she was a little girl. In the couple of weekdays leading up to each Shabbat her mother already would have begun a flurry of preparations shopping, cleaning, and cooking. By Friday afternoon her mother’s pace reached a frenzy as she hurried and scurried, working so hard to get things in order for the beginning of Shabbat.  The teacher and her siblings knew that they had better do what mother barked at them to do, (“Clean your room! Don’t get crumbs on the floor! Take your showers! Help in the kitchen!), and they knew not to challenge her or ask her for ANYTHING when she was in that mode, like an angry, irritable commander in the army.  Then, just before nightfall, mother would kindle the Sabbath lights, covering her eyes, as is customary, as she recited the blessing. “Magically”, as soon as her blessing left her lips, her hands would open from her face, and a soft, sweet, smiling, gentle voice would emit the most inviting, comforting wish to her children of a “Shabbat Shalom”, (a peaceful Shabbat).  As a little girl, this teacher could not comprehend how her mother could transform almost instantly from a wild, raving, commanding, demanding, tornado force to a peaceful, present, glowing, embracing source of love.  She decided that there had to be something like a little angel that crawled up her mother’s arm, underneath her two hands covering her mother’s face, who did some magic to transform her mother, pushing her mother’s frown into a smile.  As a little girl, she would try so hard to pry her mother’s hands away from her face during the blessing in order to witness the angel doing its magical work! 

I was recently reflecting on how not peaceful my family’s Friday night Shabbat dinners at home were for so many years when our kids were younger.  The start of our blessings and dinners were fraught with the cries and needs of toddlers, the rush to cook dinner, the scowls of pre-teens/teens, the exhaustion from the week of work, and I remember thinking “who were these Rabbis who thought Shabbat is meant to be peaceful??? Were they with their families???” And then, our kids grew up a bit more, and became a part of the preparations, and also started to really value that family together time. Finally, we got to a place where the commencement of the “time of rest” felt real.  Our Friday Shabbat blessings and dinners have truly become a time of peace, togetherness, and distinction from the craze of the rest of the week. So, for sure, there are joys and challenges, even in the effort to initiate this sacred time.  

Then, the challenge of actually experiencing Shabbat for 24 hours, not just the ushering in of the day of rest, is also something many Jews wrestle with. Could I, should I, turn off my cell phone and skip a day of email? If I’m doing something enjoyable on a screen or taking a drive to the beach are those considered work or rest? Should I run my errands that I have no time for during the work week? Is there a way I can actually drop my worries and petty thoughts and focus on joy, gratitude, humility, family, and community? What counts as experiencing the Shabbat?