written by Rabbi Michael Friedland
Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of turning. Of course we think of this as the Sabbath of Repentance – Shabbat Teshuvah because we are in that frame of mind, trying to do teshuvah, repenting for wrongs we have done, asking forgiveness from those we may have wronged. But Shuvah means to turn or return, as in the opening words of our haftarah this morning.
Shabbat Shuvah therefore is the Sabbath of Return. But a beautiful piece in the New York Times by the late Oliver Sacks suggests that Shabbat itself can be the source of return.
The article was one of the last published pieces by the gifted doctor and writer. In it he offers a nostalgic and idyllic picture of his childhood Sabbath growing up in a large extended Orthodox family in London.
“My mother and her 17 brothers and sisters had an Orthodox upbringing — all photographs of their father show him wearing a yarmulke, and I was told that he woke up if it fell off during the night. My father, too, came from an Orthodox background. Both my parents were very conscious of the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”), and …Shabbos was entirely different from the rest of the week. No work was allowed, no driving, no use of the telephone; it was forbidden to switch on a light or a stove. Being physicians, my parents made exceptions. They could not take the phone off the hook or completely avoid driving; they had to be available, if necessary, to see patients, or operate, or deliver babies.
We lived in a fairly Orthodox Jewish community in Cricklewood, in Northwest London — the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the greengrocer, the fishmonger, all closed their shops in good time for the Shabbos, and did not open their shutters till Sunday morning. All of them, and all our neighbors, we imagined, were celebrating Shabbos in much the same fashion as we did.
Around midday on Friday, my mother doffed her surgical identity and attire and devoted herself to making gefilte fish and other delicacies for Shabbos. Just before evening fell, she would light the ritual candles, cupping their flames with her hands, and murmuring a prayer. We would all put on clean, fresh Shabbos clothes, and gather for the first meal of the Sabbath, the evening meal. My father would lift his silver wine cup and chant the blessings and the Kiddush, and after the meal, he would lead us all in chanting the grace.
On Saturday mornings, my three brothers and I trailed our parents to Cricklewood Synagogue on Walm Lane, a huge shul built in the 1930s to accommodate part of the exodus of Jews from the East End to Cricklewood at that time. The shul was always full during my boyhood, and we all had our assigned seats, the men downstairs, the women — my mother, various aunts and cousins —upstairs; as a little boy, I sometimes waved to them during the service. Though I could not understand the Hebrew in the prayer book, I loved its sound and especially hearing the old medieval prayers sung, led by our wonderfully musical hazan.
All of us met and mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons, if not interrupted by emergency medical calls for my parents, would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another. The Second World War decimated our Jewish community in Cricklewood, and the Jewish community in England as a whole was to lose thousands of people in the postwar years. Many Jews, including cousins of mine, emigrated to Israel; others went to Australia, Canada or the States; my eldest brother, Marcus, went to Australia in 1950. Many of those who stayed assimilated and adopted diluted, attenuated forms of Judaism. Our synagogue, which would be packed to capacity when I was a child, grew emptier by the year.” Sacks’ writes with sincerity and empathy in recalling the communal and familial warmth associated with those early years. Many in our community, growing up in the 30’s and 40’s in South Bend or Chicago, can identify both with Sacks’ memories of vibrant Jewish life and also with its attenuation as Jews assimilated and were welcomed into mainstream Western culture in the 50’s and 60’s.
Like many of his contemporaries, Sacks did not identify with the religious commitments of his older relatives. However a particularly painful incident caused his break with religious Judaism to be total.
“(When) I was 18… my father, inquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.
“I haven’t done anything,” I said, “it’s just a feeling — but don’t tell Ma, she won’t be able to take it.”
He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.
After he finished his medical degree he abruptly left England for further studies at UCLA. Though his anger and rejection of religion was understandable, it created an emptiness within him that he attempted to fill with a near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s.
His recovery started, slowly, as he found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx which became the basis for his book “Awakenings”. He felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown to the general public and to many of my colleagues. He had discovered his vocation, became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct. Despite little encouragement from colleagues for this interest of his, he found his writing deeply satisfying but lonely.
Sacks’ large family produced more than one brilliant scion. During the 1990s, he came to know his cousin and contemporary, Robert John Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for Economics. Sacks described his cousin as “a man of great intellectual power but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment — “commitment,” indeed, is one of his favorite words. Although, in his work, he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith.”
Aumann is an Israeli and insisted that Sacks have a mezuzah on his door, and brought him one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” Sacks didn’t argue.
Sacks was impressed with Aumann’s commitment to Sabbath observance. Aumann described his love of Shabbat in an interview: “The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” he said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society —it is about improving one’s own quality of life.”
The same month that Aumann won the Nobel Prize, Oliver Sacks was found to have cancer in one eye, and while he was in the hospital for treatment his cousin visited. He was full of entertaining stories about the Nobel Prize and the ceremony in Stockholm, but made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.
In the spring of 2014 Sacks was invited to Israel to celebrate another cousin’s 100th birthday. Sacks had not been to Israel in 60 years, partly due to his politics and partly due to his concerns about how he would be received as an openly gay man. But he went.
He writes, “It was purely a family visit. I celebrated Marjorie’s 100th with her and extended family. I saw two other cousins dear to me in my London days, innumerable second and removed cousins, and, of course, Robert John. I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.
I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?”
Much can be said in reaction to Oliver Sack’s lovely essay. How many Jews have turned away from Judaism because of the intolerance or miserliness of spirit exhibited by those who thought they were defending Judaism? How many have left the warm embrace of community, certain that its rituals and routines were antiquated, no longer necessary in the throbbing, unmasked, hustle bustle of modernity with its temptations of material pleasure only to find that such a choice leaves them cold and devoid of meaningfulness?
What struck me most, however, was how when Shabbat is observed, truly observed, as a day of peace, and wholeness, and generosity of spirit, its true warmth is allowed to emerge, and how that transcendent and sublime beauty can effect others.
I think that is what we try and accomplish here at Sinai – with our communal lunches, with our programs that attempt to bring all the elements of our community together – our youth in the FEAST program, young families, veteran members, seekers of all types – ourmeditation and musar groups, and most importantly our true welcoming attitude, we don’t just say hi to new faces we make sure to engage them – all of us joining together to not only find the warmth of Shabbat but by coming together to exude it.
Sacks concludes his essay, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
May we all find the contentedness that Oliver Sacks found in his Shuvah, his personal return and appreciation, of Shabbat, and in his life in our own observance of Shabbat.