TGIS (Thank God It’s Shabbat)
It is always wonderful to see so many people here on a Friday night. Temple Sinai is a loving community of Shabbat worshippers …. [Rabbi Litwak interrupts]
Excuse me, I have just been informed that tonight is Wednesday. [Crumple up fake page of sermon and throw it backwards to Rabbi Litwak.]
It is always wonderful to see so many of you here on Yom Kippur. As we begin what is considered the holiest of days, we treat ourselves a little differently tonight.
On most days we take good care of our bodies. We eat healthful food, we wash our bodies and brush our teeth. On Yom Kippur we fast, refraining from food and water for our insides, and soap and water for our outsides. Yom Kippur is a day of abstention.
Most days we wear whatever we find in the closet. Tonight we pay attention to how we look. Some of us wear white, some will not wear leather, some even wear a kittel, the traditional garb worn on only two occasions in a lifetime: under the Chuppah when getting married, and under the lights of our sanctuary when greeting God on Yom Kippur. Many of us will wear a Tallit and Kippah, perhaps for the only day this year. Yom Kippur is a day of mindfulness of our appearance.
Most days we find ourselves focused on the events of the present. We focus on our immediate goals and how we can accomplish them as fast as possible so we can move on to the next goal. But not Yom Kippur. Tonight we reflect upon the past. We take stock of our shortcomings and we pray for a better year than the year that just ended. We think carefully on how we can improve ourselves to make this year a year of blessing. We apologize for our past misdeeds, and we work to improve our bad habits and imperfections. Kol Nidre is a night of reflection, while Yom Kippur is a day of repentance.
Most days we spend our time at work. On this High Holy Day we spend time with family and community. We turn off our cell phones and disconnect from the professional world. We focus on our spiritual gains and we pray. For 364 days out of the year, we focus on the routine; but on Yom Kippur we focus upon the Divine inside us all.
You know, Yom Kippur is kind of like Shabbat! [Retrieve crumpled paper.]
In fact, the Torah describes Yom Kippur as a day of complete rest: Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. On Yom Kippur we read Torah and Haftarah just like on Shabbat, and the Haftarah includes the reminder from Isaiah to “call the Sabbath "delight," The Lord's holy day "honored";” in order to seek favor from God.
Where Shabbat does differ from Yom Kippur, though, is in oneg Shabbat, the joy of Shabbat. On Shabbat we enjoy Challah, wine, meals with family and friends, a mid-day schluff, and of course the double mitzvah… (You laugh, but it’s in the Talmud!) On Shabbat we increase our bodily pleasure so that we can increase the pleasures of our souls. We are told to remember Shabbat, honor Shabbat, and keep it holy. Like on Yom Kippur we are not to work on Shabbat, but with a slightly different impetus.
Yom Kippur is Shabbat shabbaton lachem, the Sabbath of Sabbaths for you. Saturday is Shabbat ladonai elohecha, Sabbath for Adonai your God. Every Friday night as the sun sets, we are sanctifying a moment in time that serves as a declaration of our faith in God.
In the 2nd chapter of Genesis we first hear of Shabbat. God spends the first chapter of the Torah creating. Light and darkness, earth, water, sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals. In six days God creates heaven and earth. On the seventh day God rests.
Genesis 2:3 explains, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation.”
And there, in the second chapter of the Torah, God creates the weekend.
I think about our calendar. With the calendar we measure time through planetary movement. In one day the earth rotates on its axis once. In one month the moon revolves around the earth once. In one year the earth revolves around the sun once. And yet there is nothing in the cosmos that delineates a week. We have to work out weeks on our own. The week is the only calendrical measurement of time that is not determined by movement of astrological objects. The only one!
That means we can observe days, months, and years. There is ebb and flow to them. It gets dark and light. The moon grows and disappears. The planet gets colder and warmer.
We cannot observe a week happening. No star or planet makes it clear that a week has gone by. We have to pay attention to know what day it is. How many of us go back to work on a Tuesday after a long weekend and say, “Today feels like a Monday!” Even with the calendar in front of us it is sometimes hard to keep track.
The week is not planetary time…it is God-time. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. A week is a Torah-mandated measurement of time!
So celebrating Shabbat becomes a declaration of our faith in God. We stop working because God stopped. And God stopped because God wants us to stop.
In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the daily human quest as a conquering of space. Heschel describes how we build things and acquire things, and these things take up space in the world. We understand our achievements through how we have used our space. Look at what I have built, look at what I own, look at what I can buy. Often we conquer space at the expense of time. We use our days to the fullest of their capacity. In conquering space, we lose time.
My friend Brian joined the US Army after he graduated college. Years later he would describe with great agony some of the perils of Basic Training. Of course, in Basic he had to do a lot of push-ups. He told me that unlike the movies they didn’t have to do 50 or 100 push-ups at a time. They had to do push-ups to Muscle Failure. His drill sergeant would make them push until they were unable to push any more. They would fall on their faces, exhausted, and do it again the next day.
This is exactly how many of us work in our professional lives. We push and push until we cannot so much as open an email, then we drive home, collapse, wake up, and start all over again.
If we keep it up we will cause problems worse than muscle failure. We will have mental and spiritual failure. Eventually something has to give. If we refuse to take time, time will find a way to catch up to us.
The Torah gives us a way to take time. We are commanded not to work on Shabbat. Outside of the restriction against kindling a fire, it does not teach us much more than that. Honor it, remember it, sanctify it, and don’t work. What does that mean?
In the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat lists 39 malachot—39 activities that are not allowed on Shabbat. No plowing, grinding, tearing, writing, baking, cutting, lighting a fire, etc etc. You can probably find a complete list on Wikipedia. These 39 malachot are derived from the work done making bread, making clothing, tanning animal hides, and building the Temple. In strict practice today you either find behavior tailored to allow following the rules, or acrobatic manipulation of the law.
For example, in Israel most hotels place what looks like a mini-package of tissues in guest rooms on Friday afternoon. These are not for blowing your nose, but for use after relieving yourself. Pre-measured toilet paper prevents the observant Jew from tearing on Shabbat.
Some people will put timers on their lights, water heaters, and televisions. That way they can derive the benefits from light, hot water, and their favorite program without actually flipping the switch on Shabbat.
Perhaps we think of these as silly and/or hypocritical. Why waste material and packaging just to not rip toilet paper on Shabbat? Isn’t being environmentally conscious more important to us today? And a timer seems like a waste of energy. If we are not home, the lights still go on. Even more to the point, why is it ok to use the electricity if it is not ok to turn it on?
These manipulations of everyday activities are not done to skirt halachah. The special toilet paper, Shabbat timers and elevators, walking from place to place, not carrying things, and everything we do or do not do on Shabbat serve to make Shabbat special. This is sanctifying Shabbat—making it Holy.
Perhaps this is not what works for us, but to the traditional Jew it makes perfect sense. Our task, then, is to find ways to make Shabbat meaningful for us.
This past November at the URJ Biennial convention in San Diego, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, offered some of his thoughts on Shabbat and how to make it Holy again. Shabbat worship is an integral part of our week. In Rabbi Yoffe’s words,
Reform Jews [keep] Shabbat because they need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating…. For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible. Our tradition does not instruct us to stop working altogether on Shabbat; after all, it takes a certain amount of effort to study, pray, and go to synagogue. Be we are asked to abstain from the work that we do to earn a living, and instead to reflect, to enjoy, and to take a stroll through the neighborhood…. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.
He explained the centrality of Shabbat worship to Judaism, especially to Reform Judaism. We have a need to focus less on the restrictions of Shabbat, and more on the joy, celebration, and worship.
In 1991 the CCAR Press published Gates of Shabbat, a Guide for Observing Shabbat. In this book, Mark Dov Shapiro describes three types of Shabbat worshippers, three examples of how to take a break on Shabbat and make it holy. He calls them The Walker, The Museumgoer, and The Painter. The Walker serves as the more traditional Shabbat observer. He spends no money and uses no technology. He will go to the park or take his canoe out on a local river. He will picnic at the beach or study with a group of friends. The Walker “puts aside the so-called necessities of modern life and uses Shabbat… [to do] something positive through thought, leisure, and friendship….”
The Museumgoer also stays away from work on Shabbat, but this Jew is willing to drive and spend money, but she puts limits on how her money will be spent. For example, she will not go shopping on Shabbat, but she will drive to and pay the admission for a day at a museum. Shabbat for the Museumgoer is made holy through freedom from necessity. Her activities increase in holiness when she shares them with her family and friends. Of course, these activities can all be done on a day that is not Shabbat. For Reform Jews, what makes these activities special for us is the intent as we do them. We honor Shabbat by refreshing and giving new life to our soul. No chores or errands are allowed.
The Painter is a very different example of a Shabbat observer. God stopped the work of creation on Shabbat and rested. We are to follow God’s example with our rest. Painting can be considered a form of creating, so how does the Painter justify his Shabbat ritual? He uses the book of Deuteronomy, in which Shabbat is described as a reminder of our liberation from Egypt. Therefore, it makes sense to the Painter to allow himself to feel liberated as well. An activity like painting, even though it is not halachically shabbes-dik, can be the perfect restful antidote to the meetings and appointments of the work week. As long as the activity is not something we get paid for during the rest of the week, engaging in some form of art allows the mind to relax while the hands move the brush.
There are many ways to honor Shabbat and sanctify our day of rest. As a gift to the Union, Rabbi Yoffe gave us 52 suggestions. The Gift of Shabbat Box from the Union for Reform Judaism contains a deck of cards, each with a creative way to celebrate Shabbat. Everyone who attended the Biennial in San Diego received a Shabbat deck. Tonight, we are giving a Shabbat deck to each of you. As you leave this evening, please pick up one deck per family from the ushers.
Some of the suggestions will be meaningful to you, and some will not. All of them will get us thinking about how to bring the Shabbat experience into our lives as individuals, as families, and as a community.
Now, I have been playing card games since I was 5 years old, and I know that with 52 cards you can play hundreds of different games. We are going to play a little game this year with our cards. And I am not only referring to the Poker tournament on November 1. Every Friday night as we kindle the Shabbat lights we are going to draw a card from the Gift of Shabbat deck. The following Shabbat, we will briefly describe how that particular card can add meaning to our lives here at Temple Sinai. So when we draw the card that says, “I try to do something cultural on Shabbat afternoon…” the Museumgoer might hear about it and tell us about her Shabbat ritual. Then she or the clergy might tell the congregation about it the following Friday night, just before we draw the next card from our deck.
With the Gift of Shabbat Deck, there are infinite possibilities to enhance your Shabbat experience and engage in sanctifying Shabbat as a community. We will continue to celebrate Shabbat together, and we will find more meaningful and exciting ways to make our Shabbat holy. If you already have a regular Shabbat activity that you do, share it with us. Include your Temple Sinai family in your Shabbat ritual. Perhaps what is routine for you will be inspirational for someone else.
If something happens to you on a particular Shabbat that makes you aware of its holiness, tell us. We want to involve as many people as possible in our exploration of Shabbat worship over the coming year.
Temple Sinai is going to be playing with Shabbat this year as well. We will still offer our beloved programs like Tot Shabbat and Friday Night Live. Tot Shabbat will have one minor change. Instead of 7:00 Tot Shabbat services, we will begin our Tot Shabbat experience at 6:00. After a brief, under-5-friendly service, we will enjoy a Shabbat dinner together here at Temple Sinai. Often these programs will feature one or two of our ECE classes singing songs they learn from Miss Pat, and everyone is always invited to enjoy. Adults should be accompanied by a child.
Our Friday Night Live services are always well received. Cantor Kruk rocks the house, and the ruach is palpable. We will continue Friday Night Live every other month—even numbered months—on the third Friday of the month. This month we celebrate FNL on October 24, which is Shabbat Bereshit. What a way to begin our Torah cycle!
On odd numbered months we are going to try something new. The third Friday of each odd-numbered month will be a Family Shabbat. Family Shabbat nights will begin at 5:30. Family Shabbat services are come-as-you-are, family-friendly, and relatively short. Whether you are coming from work, the gym, or soccer practice, everyone is welcome. Our Family Shabbat experience will tap into our summer camp Shabbat memories. We will lead with guitars and storytelling, creating a tangible, visceral experience that our children and adults will love. We hope you will join us in just one month from now on November 14 at 5:30 PM for our first Family Shabbat.
Friends, this is a major, seed-changing task that lies ahead of us, and some of you will be asked to help. The lay leader, perhaps better than the rabbi, can implement this kind of change to restore Shabbat to its rightful place. At Rabbi Yoffe’s suggestion, Temple Sinai will create a Shabbat Task Force—a cadre of Temple Sinai partners who will meet weekly for eight weeks, experiencing Shabat at Temple Sinai and at other local synagogues. They will learn from the best practices of Shabbat worship and report back to the Jewish Living Committee and the clergy. We will then weave the suggestions of the Task Force in to our own Shabbat worship experience.
The more we experience Shabbat, the more we will understand how Shabbat rest can be liberating.
Tonight is Kol Nidre. It is a night full of spirituality and meaning. Our challenge is to bring some of the Kavannah—the intention—of Kol Nidre to our souls every week.
Tonight we think about the vows we have broken and those we have renewed. Let us make a communal vow to make Shabbat observance, in some way, a central part of our Jewish identities for the coming year.
Tonight we dream. We remember the past and dream of the promise of a rich future. Our dream tonight is of a meaningful Shabbat. Shabbat for us will be a day of rest, a day of revitalization, a day of connection with our loved ones.
On this Yom Kippur, this Shabbat of our souls, we embark on a journey of many chances to experience Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath, every week.
So again, I bid you all Shabbat Shalom.