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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Kol Nidre - 2015/5776



Shabbat Shabbaton
Yom Kippur / Kol Nidre 5776

Once upon a time, there were two angels. Every Friday afternoon, before the start of Shabbat, they went from Jewish home to Jewish home, peeking in the windows to see what they could see. The good angel would look for Shabbat candles, clean clothes laid out, ready for the holiday; the angel would sniff for fresh challah, listen for children excited for the day, could almost taste the brisket or chicken in the oven, and could practically touch the excitement in the air. At those houses, the good angel would smile proudly, look at the other angel, and say, “May it be God’s will that next Shabbat will be just like this one.” And the other angel, the bad angel, would have to say, however reluctantly, “Amen.” But at other homes, the bad angel would look for candlesticks and delight when they were nowhere to be found; the bad angel would listen for children arguing, sniff for the primary smell to be a not particularly good one, perhaps leftovers a little past their prime, or garbage that should have been taken out yesterday; the bad angel could just about put a finger on Friday night being more or less the same as all the nights before and all the nights following. At those houses, the bad angel would grin wickedly and say, “May it be God’s will that next Shabbat will be just like this one.” And the good angel would have to sadly agree, “Amen.”

The problem with this story is that it leaves out most homes, the ones where the challah is from the supermarket, so there is no scent of fresh-baked bread; the ones where the children are arguing—but it’s because they’re so excited about the special dessert awaiting them after dinner; the ones where dinner is takeout so that the family can rush to services; the ones where there are no blessings and no clean tablecloth, but everyone is, at least for the moment, home together.

The other problem with this story, of course, is that it takes place on Shabbat, and tonight is Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, with days to go before Shabbat arrives again. But Yom Kippur is a holiday of many names. We learn in the Torah that it is Yom HaKippurim, more accurately translated as ‘day of the atonements.’ Yom Kippur is also known as Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of Shabbats. If most of us were asked, I expect we’d hear that Yom Kippur is the holiest or most important day on the Jewish calendar, but that distinction truly goes to Shabbat, which, traditionally, has more people called to the Torah as well as a more severe punishment for violating the day—death for violating Shabbat, versus “only” excommunication for violating Yom Kippur. Shabbat may feel less special, because it comes every week, but this Yom Kippur, we can imagine those angels looking in our windows every Shabbat through the entire year ahead. This Yom Kippur, as we consider how we can do better, be better in the year that has just begun, we start with the most important days of the year. We start with Shabbat.

Shabbat is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; it is a gift that we get such holiness every single week. In the Ten Commandments, we are told zachor, remember, and shamor, guard or observe Shabbat, and make it holy. Depending on where we read about Shabbat, we learn different reasons or functions for the day. The Torah tell us that Shabbat connects to creation: “In six days, the Eternal made heaven, earth, sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it”. The Torah tells us that Shabbat connects to redemption from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day”. The Torah tells us that Shabbat is the ethical thing to do: “you shall not do any work . . . so that your male and female slave may rest as you do”. And the Torah tells us that Shabbat connects us to God: ot hee l’olam, Shabbat is an eternal sign between God and the Jewish people.   The prophet Isaiah tells us that we are even supposed to enjoy Shabbat, calling it “a delight”.

And so we have Shabbat, twenty-five hours, from candle lighting at dusk on Friday to havdalah at dark on Saturday, a time when we are told to do no work, to delight, rest and be refreshed. At my parents’ house, there was a sign hanging across from the door from the garage into the house—actually, I think it’s still there—that said, “hang in there, Shabbos is coming!” We didn’t talk about Shabbat all that much during the rest of the week, but the sign was always there, always pointing to Friday night. Traditionally, of course, Shabbat begins with lighting the candles—any two candles; at Hillel in college, we used tea lights, so that candlesticks were not necessary and as many people as wanted to light could do so. We say Kiddush, sanctifying time with wine or grape juice, a symbol of joy, praising God for giving us Shabbat. We ask God’s blessing on our children and spouse. And we say a blessing over the challah, the same blessing as we say for any meal containing bread, any time of the week.

Some Jews refrain from any kind of work on Shabbat, usually interpreted as the thirty-nine categories of work the ancient rabbis defined in the mishnah as necessary for building and running the Tabernacle, from grinding to cooking to kindling or extinguishing a fire. Some Jews go to synagogue every Friday evening, Saturday morning, and more. Some mark the end of Shabbat with Havdalah. Some delight in hiddur mitzvah, the tradition of glorifying God by going above and beyond in the way mitzvot are performed: using not just tea lights, but beautiful candlesticks; not just a wine glass, but a meaningful Kiddush cup, not just a napkin, but a challah cover made with love. On Shabbat, hiddur mitzvah is the difference between going through the motions and making an effort every time. Here at Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, our Women of Emanu-El and Temple Brotherhood give a gift of candlesticks and a Kiddush cup to every student who becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We have one board member who, when presenting these gifts, tells students that these items have a lifetime warranty; if they wear out from overuse, she tells them, please bring them back, and we’ll replace them. Give it a try! Remember the joy of your own Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or your child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, every Friday night when pulling the Kiddush cup off the shelf and putting candles in the candlesticks. Beautifying our mitzvot doesn’t have to be expensive. The love a young child puts into decorating a challah cover is immense. Use it and delight in it—and then make more for the grandparents, so the family can be connected by Shabbat even when separated by geography. We get a chance to celebrate Shabbat, our most important day, to remember it and observe it—and make it beautiful and holy—every single week.

Unfortunately, we are failing at Shabbat. We are not observing it; we are not remembering it; we are not making it holy; we are not calling it a delight. We are failing, because we make excuses about being too busy. We are failing, because we have forgotten our priorities. We are failing, because we are taking our freedom too lightly. Shabbat is a holiday that can be observed only by people who are free, not by slaves. Slaves cannot choose not to work on a given day. In Roman times, the Jews were considered lazy, because we wanted that full day off every single week. In the ancient world, that idea was revolutionary. The thought of fighting for one day off each week rings hollow to us in our modern world, though, because the labor movement gave so many of us the five-day workweek, providing for not just one day off every seven, but two days. For most of us, then, Shabbat doesn’t even fall on a day that is otherwise a workday, but a weekend day. Shabbat has become less central because we don’t have to plan our work lives around it. Instead though, if we are to mark Shabbat, we have to plan our personal lives around it—and that can be even harder. We were slaves, and God freed us with an open hand and an outstretched arm. And then, somewhere along the way, little by little, we were enslaved again. Our new master is our calendar, the pull to do more and more and more and never slow down.

This degeneration from being free people to returning to slavery is terrifying. So many of us reflexively say that we don’t have time for Shabbat. Our lives are too busy, our weekends are too packed, our weeks are too stressful, and we just don’t have the time to rest. Thousands of years of Jewish tradition, though, have taught us that Shabbat is a time for people who are free. That thought keeps me up at night. In a society that prides itself on being one of the freest in the world, what is it that enslaves us—and how can we set ourselves free? Jews who we would see as enslaved have risked their lives for Shabbat: hoarding tiny pieces of thread and a dab of margarine in a concentration camp, just to light a makeshift candle on Friday night; lighting candles in a closet in Spain during the Inquisition, eating broth all week and saving for a chicken bone, just to have a special Shabbat meal. We think of them as enslaved, but they found a way to observe Shabbat in their circumstances, freeing themselves of the restrictions that surrounded them at every turn. How can we, 21st century American Reform Jews who live fully in the world around us, free ourselves to fit Shabbat into our lives? How can our modern lives fit into the ancient framework of Shabbat? How can we stop making excuses, and instead make time for Shabbat?

Saying “I don’t have time” is a terrible excuse. Each of us has the same twenty-four hours in every day, the same seven days in every week. How we use them is up to us. So when we say we don’t have time, what we’re really saying is, “I didn’t make time.” We all make time for activities we value. We all made time to be here tonight, a Tuesday evening when there are dozens of other things we could have been doing—and for a holiday that is not, according to Jewish tradition, as important as Shabbat. We forget, all too often, to examine our priorities, to make sure that something doesn’t start to take much more time than intended, to make sure no one activity begins to enslave us, to make sure that something we truly value doesn’t slip away. We are letting Shabbat slip away; we are failing at the most important day on our calendars, every single week.

We set ourselves free to celebrate, to remember, to observe Shabbat when we realize that what the good angel hopes to see isn’t the only way to do Shabbat. We may already have elements of Shabbat on our Friday nights and Saturdays. Consider what we know about Shabbat. One of its purposes is to rest and be refreshed. If we are achieving that, we’re doing something right. Over the summer, some sixty-five of us gathered at a local park late on Friday afternoon. As a group, we moved picnic tables together, tried (and failed) to keep candles burning in the beautiful breeze, passed out cups of grape juice to everyone, shared many loaves of challah, and enjoyed an incredibly festive Shabbat dinner, in a public park, miles from the synagogue. I’m not sure what the angels would have thought of that evening, but it was one of the most refreshing Shabbat evenings I’ve had in a long time. One of the purposes of Shabbat is to remember the exodus from Egypt, to mark our freedom. That means that as long as we are pursuing something we want to be doing, we are doing something right on Shabbat. It also means that if we are spending our Shabbat doing things we hate doing, things we would rather continue to put off, things someone has to nag us to do, that we could probably be doing Shabbat a little differently. It means Shabbat observance can vary from person to person. If we want to connect with God’s creation, one of us might choose to go for a long walk or jog, another of us might choose to get down on our hands and knees in the garden, another might kick back on the porch with a magazine or a good book, and still another might load the family into the car and drive to a beautiful park to play. Each one might think the other’s activity sounds like a chore, the opposite of Shabbat—but each one is filling Shabbat with meaning and rest. Every time we say about a Shabbat activity, “I wish I could, but…” or “it sounds great, but…”, we need to consider whether we are truly free, or what still enslaves us.

We set ourselves free to celebrate, to remember, to observe Shabbat when we consider, this Yom Kippur, how we can do a little more than we’re already doing. Shabbat is not just about pure freedom and resting; it is not just a day off, but a Jewish day about connecting to the story of creation and God’s rest, remembering that God made the day holy, remembering Shabbat as a sign between us and God. We cannot let redefining Shabbat mean lowering the bar to a meaningless vacation day; it is still a day to do something Jewish, something holy, but new traditions can be as meaningful as ones that are generations old.

I’ll be the first to admit that if those two angels show up outside my window on Friday afternoon, the bad angel might speak up pretty quickly. After all, there isn’t always a family dinner on Friday evenings—sometimes our daughter eats here in the Soref lounge right before services, and my husband and I eat after she goes to sleep. But if those angels stick around a little longer, the good angel would find more courage to speak up.

Al chet she-chatanu l’fanecha, the ways we have wronged You by forgetting Shabbat, and harm we have caused in Your world through not observing it at all. The ways we have wronged You by making excuses about how hard it is to find time to slow down, and harm we have caused in Your world through allowing ourselves to be enslaved after You freed us. The ways we have wronged You by ignoring Shabbat without a second thought, and harm we have caused in Your world through turning down opportunities to change. For all these failures of judgment and will, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement.

On this Shabbat Shabbaton, this Shabbat of Shabbats, let’s commit to putting the excuses aside, looking again at Shabbat, to patting ourselves on the back for the moments of holiness we’ve already found, to finding just a few more of those moments each Shabbat. May we find, this Yom Kippur, the courage and the strength, the patience and the intention, to free ourselves to explore the holiness of Shabbat. And when we gather for Yom Kippur next year, may we—and the good angel—be proud of how we have freed ourselves to observe and delight in Shabbat.

Sat, May 27 2023 7 Sivan 5783