No Nagging Shabbat

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So you have heard about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. What you heard sounded very good, but the logistics are intimidating: no cooking, no electricity on and off, no work of any kind, no electronics. You look at your family and wonder how you are going to sell them on this idea.

Stop. Let me tell you about how I began to keep Shabbat more than 20 years ago.

It was about the time I began to study for conversion to Judaism. My enthusiasm was building, even though the other members of my family weren’t interested in going to services. I wanted to have some Shabbat at home, too.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. Their rooms were disaster areas, they preferred wearing old rags to clothes, they were not industrious students, and I felt responsible for them.  There were a number of areas where it seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted to take a break from it, I wanted them to take a break from it, and I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.'” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

Shabbat Shalom: A Visit to Kehilla

Today was an especially sweet Shabbat, exactly when I needed it.

My dear friend Rabbi Robin Podolsky is visiting town, and we joined up to attend services at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland this morning. Their website proclaims:

Kehilla is a community of social progressives and spiritual seekers:a  participatory, musical, celebratory and democratic congregation of all ages, identities and family constellations.

I have experienced them as a Renewal community that is serious about both social action and spiritual growth, and it was a treat to daven with them this morning. We didn’t quite have a minyan (a lot of the regulars were away at an event) but the prayer was nevertheless sweet and the Torah study led by Rabbi David Cooper was inspiring. Our welcome from all attendees was warm and very personal.

It was a particular pleasure to learn with Rabbi Cooper, since he was one of my first teachers of Torah, back when he was the proprietor of Afikomen bookstore in Berkeley. I was exploring Judaism, not yet ready to talk to a rabbi. He was just a bookstore guy, as far as I knew, and he had a knack for picking out good reading for me. Those books are still in my library; many of them have been lent again and again to other explorers.

At the simple kiddush meal following the service we chatted about lots of things, then Rabbi Cooper gave us a tour of the newly-decorated sanctuary and we chatted for a bit about the Pope’s new encyclical Laudato Si. Then I returned Robin to the home where she is staying and I returned home to a nice Shabbat shluff [nap.]

So, nu, how was your Shabbos?

A Little Twitter Trick

Busy day ahead! I am meeting other members of the Social Action Committee from my congregation to sort donations at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. I think we’ll do a little bit of good and have a nice time. Then meeting my son for lunch, then getting ready for Shabbat. I suspect this was my one chance at a blog post, so here I am.

I have learned a new trick – if you use Twitter, try searching for the name of the weekly Torah portion, which you can get at the Hebcal Jewish Calendar site. Go there, and look at the top of the page for the link to the weekly portion. (That link will take you to a directory of various ways to access the portion.) Now go back to Twitter, and search on the name of the portion, with or without a hashtag.  Voilá: Links to many current posts about the portion!

This works better the closer we get to Friday.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Wonders of Shabbat

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There is a Jewish mystical tradition that holds that every Shabbat a Jew receives a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul. The first time I heard that, I thought it sounded a bit excessive: I have my hands full with the soul I’ve got.

The concept of the extra soul holds that on Shabbat, we are given extra capacity because of the holiness of the day and the opportunity for learning Torah. Torah study is not just an intellectual activity, although it is certainly that. It also has the power to transform our souls. Traditionally, study on Shabbat is even more powerful: we can take in more Torah than on an ordinary day, and the Torah we take in is more potent than usual.

I confess that I’m a rational little person, and I don’t know how seriously I can take all that. If someone asked me to locate for them the mind or the soul I would have no idea where to look. I think of the mind as attached to my head and the soul to my heart, but I have no evidence for either. (Nor does it explain why I feel sick to my stomach when I feel guilt.)

However, I do experience something different about Shabbat, something that I cannot simply move to a different day. Those who are mystical will have their explanations of that, and I have my own. For me, Shabbat is the time when we, the Jewish People, build that “cathedral of time” that Rabbi Heschel wrote about in The Sabbath. Whether it is given from above or created by human beings, there is power in the intentional pause that so many Jews make as the sun sets on Friday. We stop and take a collective breath, and then for 25 hours, we simply are.

Any individual can opt out, of course, and many do. Many Jews go on to work, or to sporting events, or to the shopping mall, and they don’t feel that they are missing anything. There are Jews who have experienced Shabbat, but for whom it has been marked with the stink of deprivation (“No, you may not listen to the game,” “No, you may not color,” “No, you may not make mud pies!”) and for them, being able to make or do is an expression of freedom their Jewish souls crave.

Anyone who has read this blog for long knows that I think there are many ways to be Jewish. When I think of the world on Shabbat, I think of the vast sphere of the planet revolving on its axis, and as it turns, candles light in Jerusalem in some homes. In other homes, in Tel Aviv, music plays on the radio as people enjoy their dinner. In London, a group gathers for Kabbalat Shabbat, and somewhere in Dublin, another Jew meets friends at a pub. A little later, as the sun sets in New York City, a young adult group meets for potluck in Manhattan while Chabadnikim walk home from shul with dinner guests in Brooklyn. In Cincinnati, Kabbalat Shabbat begins at the Plum Street Temple; in Denver, young families gather for Tot Shabbat. An hour later, in Berkeley, a group parks on the street near Urban Adamah where they come for singing, and prayers, and dinner; afterwards, they’ll drive home. And even later, on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, a few Jews light Shabbat candles and welcome the Sabbath Queen on the beach. And some simply watch the sunset and marvel at the wonder of it all.

It’s all Shabbat, and it is all authentic and good. What will happen in your life when the sun goes down for Shabbat this week? Whatever it is, I wish you Shalom.

Sacrifices for Shabbat?

I was delighted to see that sjewindy at A Humanistic Jew in Indianapolis left a pingback this morning to my post, Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat? entitled Jewish? Want a Saturday Wedding? Find a Humanistic Jew. He’s right about that; a humanistic Jew is one of the alternatives if you want a Saturday wedding.

However, I have an issue with something in his summary of my post, and I think it merits a post of its own. He wrote, “traditionally this [foregoing weddings on Shabbat] is a sacrifice Jews have made.” [emphasis mine]

Jews went out of the sacrifice business in 70 CE, when the Romans pulled down Herod’s Temple and burnt the broken fragments. As a Reform Jew, I am not praying for or looking forward to a restoration of that edifice, although there are folks in other movements of Judaism who are. (There’s another post for another day.)

Things I don’t do on Shabbat are not sacrifices in any sense of the word. For example, I don’t do my shopping on Shabbat. That is my practice because the day is a break from acquisition. I’m not sacrificing shopping in the way a Catholic sacrifices eating chocolate for Lent. I’m taking a break from shopping because it’s a distraction from Torah and relationships with people, and those are the focus of my sabbath.

I draw my boundaries around Shabbat differently than a halakhic Jew (a Jew who regards the contents of the medieval codes as a binding set of rules given by God and handed down through the generations.) For me, Shabbat is a day to refrain from creation and acquisition, a day profoundly different from the other six, a taste of the world as it should be. It is absolutely not a day for sacrifice in the sense of “going without.”

One of the most famous descriptions of Shabbat is in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. He describes Shabbat as “a cathedral in time.” It is time set aside for openness to the numinous, when we put away anything that might get in the way of that activity. While Heschel himself was a halakhic Jew who kept Shabbat in the classic fashion, keeping Shabbat in the 21st century means different things to different Jews.

Sjewindy and I are largely in agreement. There are lots and lots of different ways to be Jewish. But sacrifices? Not since 70 CE, and never on Shabbat!

Where’s the Miracle?

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If you look very closely at the heart of this photo, you may be able to spot a miracle: among the milkweed leaves and blossoms there is a Monarch caterpillar!

My garden is crawling with these little fellows at the moment, all happily munching their way through the milkweed. The casual observer won’t see a single one of them. All that most people see are the colorful flowers and the large, weedy-looking bushes.

This caterpillar is a tiny miracle. In a week or so, she’ll find a handy spot to set up housekeeping and make the cocoon, which will look like a bright little piece of jade studded with gold. No one is likely to notice her for another two weeks, when she emerges from the chrysalis stage as a fully-formed Monarch butterfly. Then she’ll look like the miracle she is.

We pass by “caterpillars” all the time in our lives, miracles we are just too busy or preoccupied to see, miracles that are not yet very fancy. My wish for all of us this Shabbat is that we will each have a chance to see at least one such miracle in our own lives, one tiny thing that has escaped our notice.

May this be a Shabbat of peace and blessing, a Shabbat of seeing clearly!

P.S. – if you still can’t find the caterpillar, visualize an X drawn from the four corners of the photo. Look at or just above the place where the two lines cross.

Seasons of Shabbat

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Shabbat experiences are part of our lives, and they change over the course of a lifetime. The Shabbat we remember (or don’t) from our childhoods is not the Shabbat we will have as new parents. Single adults will have a different Shabbat, as will empty nesters.

There is no “perfect” Shabbat. Stop looking for it. Instead, experience the Shabbat that comes. Sometimes it will seem peaceful and holy, and sometimes the sink will stop up or the baby will wail half the night. Sometimes we are surrounded by people, sometimes we are alone.

Shabbat simply is. She comes with the sunset and will leave 24 hours later. In between it is up to us to make of her what we can, what we will.

Shabbat shalom.