Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 18,2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
After parashat Yitro in which the Ten commandments are presented until the end of the Book of Shmot, the Torah is almost exclusively concerned with the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and the creation of the priestly institution. But opening up every few chapters, like a window of fresh air, are verses mentioning the observance of something we are familiar with - the Sabbath. It is in the 10 Commandments, of course, but we also find it here in Ki Tisa and next week before we read of the actual construction of the Tabernacle, verses about the significance of Shabbat observance are offered again. These verses about holiness in time stand as a counterpoint to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which is holiness in space. For the Bible it is not one or the other but both in their proper balance.
As if to underscore that point, according to the Sages, activities that were needed to create the Mishkan, are the very activities we refrain from doing on the Sabbath. In this way the Shabbat is a remedy to the possible malaise that can come from over extensive engagement in any kind of spatial context, holy or not.
The verses about Shabbat in this week's Torah portion make this very point.
“Let all of Israel guard the Shabbat, keeping the Shabbat in all generations as an everlasting Covenant. It is between me and the Children of Israel, a sign forever, that in six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day, paused and took a deep breath."
'Shavat viyanafash' is what we called our Kallah this year. Shavat means to cease, refrain and VaYiNafash comes from the word 'nefesh,' which means both soul and breath. Shabbat is about pausing and taking a deep breath.
Shabbat is a day for catching our breath, for taking a break from the crazy overextended life we are caught in the rest of the week. It is a day when we imitate God by standing back from what we have done, a day when we are not money-making machines or money-spending machines. It is a day when we are not machines at all, but human beings, made in the image of God.
When people hear about Shabbat in these terms they are enthralled. Who wouldn't like a pause from the busy lives we live? But the challenge is to translate the words of the Torah from parchment into life. How do we make these words that we have just heard, words that are several thousand years old, words that come from a world before there were computers or cars or credit or cash ... how do we make these words resonate for people in our own time?
I shared this article by Lilith writer Nancy Maxwell a number of years ago but it still resonates. Nancy Maxwell is a woman who has a career and a family and a host of other interests. She like many of us here attempts to juggle all the responsibilities and vocational activities in her life without losing our minds. But one day it all snapped – she writes:
“When I burst into tears over the laundry basket, I knew that something would have to change. As I sat there convulsively sobbing, my tears inundating the still-warm, lemon-scented sheets, I had to admit that things just could not continue.
“It was easy to diagnose the cause of my emotional outburst. I, like an entire generation of sister working Moms, was exhausted. With a husband, daughter, job, graduate school class and house all demanding my time and energy, my tears betrayed the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not 'do it all.' Though I had always prided myself on maintaining an organized, though hectic, schedule of household duties and errands, my tears revealed that even with all my lists, systems and constant motion, I still could not manage to get everything done.
“I could not enlist my husband to do more, nor could I give up something. My husband is already as stressed and exhausted as I am. He works longer and harder at his job than I do. Though he has offered to take on more chores, I failed to see how having him crying over the laundry basket instead of me would help matters.
“Nor could I find any activities I was willing to eliminate. I love my full-time job and I refuse to give up the intellectually-challenging graduate class I take each semester. I have already lowered housework standards, paid for what services we can afford, and stopped doing lots of little things....
“(A)s my weeping laundry session revealed, even these changes were not enough. I needed to try something radically different.
“I found my "radical solution" in a most unlikely source; at least it was an unlikely place for a non-Orthodox Jew like me. My solution was to resurrect the ancient biblical observance of Shabbat.
“But, as a liberal modern Jew, I could not and would not observe a completely Orthodox Shabbat, with all of the prohibitions against driving, turning on lights, answering the phone, et cetera. I decided that I would 'reconstruct' Shabbat in a way that would let me observe a traditional day of rest, but in a way that made sense for a contemporary Jewish career woman.
“I was still sitting on the floor amidst my tear-dampened bed sheets when I began to construct 'Nancy Maxwell's Save-Your-Own-Life Shabbat rules.' If my ancestors could cease their brick-making and their olive-tending for one day, surely I and my family could manage if no laundry or housework was done one day a week.”
What Nancy Maxwell was struggling with was not just how to bring some peace and tranquility into her home but how to incorporate the wisdom of our ancestors into a modern context. Too often we make the mistake of taking a bifurcated approach to religious obligations. It is either all –which of course is crazy and fanatical – or nothing. But adaptation is what has kept our faith vital over 2000 years.
What I find weak in Nancy Maxwell’s approach is that there is no broader context. Her Shabbat rules do not place her in a communal covenant with fellow Jews or within her religious heritage, they are simply another self-help doctrine ala Jewish sensibilities. Kind of like Madonna studying kabbalah.
In any case here is Nancy Maxwell’s list:
No shopping-No housework-No grocery stores-No laundry-No bill-paying(No even thinking about money)-No stops at the ATM, the gas station or any other errands.-No major cooking or baking.-No obligatory or guilt-induced phone calls-No doing anything else that I find unpleasant(Provided it can be put off a day without inconveniencing other members of the family. After all, I am still the Mom.)
And these are her 'yeses.'
Yes to reading and studying.
Yes to just being with my husband
Yes to playing with and reading to my daughter
Yes to having friends and family over for dinner
Yes to any outing that I find pleasant
Yes to anything else that gives me peace and joy
The list is pretty good in terms of creating an island of tranquility in the midst of a hectic week. Yet I would guess that after 6 months or so, maybe a year, Nancy Maxwell may well have had difficulty maintaining her new program. Because without the appreciation that one is following a course of action because one is compelled – as Jews because our brit with God demands of us to observe Shabbat – and with a community to support her vision – if everyone in her neighborhood held to those rules – follow through is very difficult. That is the strength of weight watchers – a community meets weekly to encourage each other (maybe fear of shaming) to keep to the program.
Art Green, a scholar of Mysticism and head of the rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College, years ago had his own “Ten Commandments” of Shabbat for the modern Jew that sound similar to Nancy Maxwell.
Stay at home, Celebrate with others, study or read something that will edify challenge or make you grow. Be Alone , take time for your self and review your week. Mark the beginning and end of sacred time through Friday night and Havdalah rituals
Don’t do anything you have to do for your work life, Don’t spend money, Don’t do business, Don’t travel long distances, stay free of encounters in which people are likely to tell you “Have a nice day”. Don’t use commercial or canned video entertainment, be in situations in which you are face to face with people.
The list are similar except that Art Green includes religious rituals to mark the time. Neither though suggest joining with others in communal religious experiences which are essential to the success of making Shabbat unique. Our passage tells us today “It is between me and the Children of Israel, a sign forever”. If not for God one could attempt to make Shabbat Wednesday or Sunday as the great Reform Jewish theologian Kaufman Kohler suggested to early 20th century Jews. But our Shabbat is from Friday night to Saturday night because in holding to that time we engage in a Covenantal commitment with the Divine.
Nancy Maxwell did a great service by acknowledging that there is a great practical element to keeping Shabbat in a way that makes us to cease and desist in order to draw a clean breath. Her approach is most worthwhile in helping us to see that God’s covenantal demands are in essence an act of great love and compassion for God’s people.