I grew up not knowing that Shabbos could be a special day. My mother—3rd generation American—received no Jewish education, and my father, who came to America as an infant from the Ukraine, was born into a family of Yiddishe secularists. We were 3-day-a-year Jews. My mother would light Shabbos candles as her mother taught her, but then serve a treif dinner followed by a night out on the town with friends, leaving me at home with my brother and sister and a babysitter. It was only after Bar Mitzvah, as I began to really learn about Judaism, that Shabbos grew important to me.
Later, in college, while discussing Shabbos with some of my non-religious Jewish friends, one of them asked, “With all the competition getting into good graduate schools, how can you afford to take off 24 hours a week, especially during mid-terms and finals?” The truth was, how could I afford not to!
Today, most American Jews are far wealthier than our grandparents would have dreamed possible. We aspire to elegant cars, beautiful homes, luxurious vacations, and powerful careers. Many of us have attained them. All we lack is the time to enjoy what we have, to relax with those we love, and to let our true selves emerge to nurture our souls.
Fortune Magazine once noted that in the decades after WWII, American workers became ever more productive—with technology reducing the need for manual labor and better-skilled workers producing more in less time—many assumed workweeks would fall to 24 hours, if not lower. A famous Harvard Business Review article argued that boredom—once the province of aristocrats—was becoming a common curse.
But not so fast! In reality, work hours increased while leisure time decreased—as jobs shifted from manufacturing to service jobs—leaving even less time for family and the ones we love. While we have more things, we have less time to remember who and what all our work is for. The good news is, the remedy to all this stress and pressure we live with already exists. It’s been tried and tested over the years, and it’s readily available. The remedy is Shabbos!
Once while interviewing a young woman who came before the Bet Din as the final step in her conversion process, I asked her what was her favorite Jewish ritual or holy day. Without hesitation, she said “Shabbos!” One of the other rabbis then asked her to compare Shabbat to some physical thing, in order draw out more of her feelings. She thought for a moment and said, “Shabbat is like a cruise vacation.” What a wonderful analogy! But it also sounded familiar. I later searched my files and I found this piece by Rabbi Bradley Artson (Jewish Spectator Fall 1993):
Imagine taking a 24‑hour cruise each week. Once on board, there are no chores, because it isn’t possible to bring any work on board. There are no ringing phones, no blaring announcements, no driving congested freeways or deadlines. All meals have already been prepared and will be served with elegance. Whatever the passengers desire has already been placed on the ship before the cruise embarked.
The vessel sets sail as the travelers gather to sing, to savor a candlelight dinner, embellished with red wine and a bread so rich it tastes like cake. Surrounded by family and friends, with nowhere to rush off to afterwards, each traveler can slowly relish the sumptuous dinner in peace.
The next morning, as was true the night before, there are no chores, no tasks, no deadlines. So everyone spends time fruitfully by gathering with other passengers by talking about matters large and small—the questions and interests that tend to get lost in the shuffle of daily life. They sing a little, meditate a bit, even taking some time to study some aspect of Jewish history or religion. There are people enjoying walks around the deck or playing favorite games together.
After enjoying another elegant meal at lunch the passengers stroll to their cabins for a nap, or, perhaps, to read simply for pleasure. At the end of the cruise, as the ship approaches its berth, everyone gathers on deck to hold a candle-lighting ceremony to mark the end of a restful, lovely time.
Each week, the entire Jewish People whoever and wherever they are, are invited to sail on just such a voyage. The luxury liner, Shabbat, provides for the needs of its passengers—offering a period free from concerns, free from stress, and free from the mundane demands of career, achievement and of doing.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to take such a cruise every week? The Luxury Cruise Liner Shabbat provides us with a weekly opportunity to be engaged intimately with loved ones, community and with Gd. You see, Gd’s Shechina, His Divine Presence visits us during this holy time if we allow our true selves—our neshama, our eternal souls—to manifest.
It is practically impossible to be a Jew alone. Community is a central aspect of Jewish identity and of Jewish spirituality. Remember, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai was to the entire Jewish People. So coming to shul and sharing Shabbos with others is an essential part of being Jewish.
This week’s Torah portion opens with Moses addressing the entire Jewish people charging them with the privilege of building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. It’s an exciting moment. But he cautions them 1st about observing Shabbat: Sheyshet yamim teyaseh m’lacha, uvayom hashevii y’hiyeh lachem kodesh, Shabbat Shabbaton laHashem (On 6 days work may be done, but the 7th day shall be holy for you—a complete Shabbat for Hashem). The question is, what does the Shabbat have to do with building the Tabernacle? It is to emphasize that if this, the holiest of work must stop on Shabbat, then all other work must cease as well.
Let me ask you, would you like to experience the joy of Shabbos—being intimate with Gd, family and community? If Shabbos is not really part of your life, perhaps you can begin on Friday night. Light the Shabbos candles; put aside all chores and unpleasant tasks as well as all your devises. That means no paying bills, no email, no texting, no WhatsApp, no twitter and no Instagram. My friends, everyone deserves a night off! And those we love deserve at least one night on with us—one evening with our full attention, playfulness, and interaction.
After a while you’ll begin to look forward to your Friday Shabbat dinner experience and you’ll be ready to deepen and expand it to the next day. Begin by committing to come to shul once or twice a month. Some people find it easier to just establish a new practice and—as Nike advises—“Just do it!” If that works for you, then begin coming to shul every Saturday morning. By establishing this as a priority that remains each week, it becomes easier to re‑schedule any other commitments.
Our lives and our nature conspire against us. How many times have you begun a diet…or resolved to get in shape…or to read more…or to stay in better touch with a friend or relative and it never happened? Make Shabbos a regular commitment, and it will transform your life. But keep Shabbos as just a goal, and you’ll only feel guilty. Shabbos, as the kiddush states, is a zeycher litziyat Mitzrayim (a memorial to the Exodus from Egypt) to teach us that we must not be slaves. On Shabbat we free ourselves to be more than a businessman, a professional or a blue colored worker. We free ourselves to be what we really are—an image of Gd, a holy soul.
I love the story of the little girl who learned about Shabbos in her Religious school and pleaded with her mother to light Shabbos candles. The mother promised every week, but somehow never got around to it. In desperation, one Friday, the little girl went to the neighborhood grocery store and asked for a Jewish candle. Some hours later, well after dark, the mother came home and saw a flickering Yahrzeit candle on her kitchen table. “Who,” the mother asked in terror, “is this for?”
The child innocently and enthusiastically replied, “Why it’s for you, mother. I lit it for you, because you didn’t have the time!”
My friends, what kind of Judaism will our children practice with their families? Will they observe a Yahrzeit, a memorial, telling stories of old rituals once practiced, or will they have their own connection to Torah and Shabbos that will shield them from the mad dash of life and teach them who they really are? Everything we do, they notice and learn from. If Jewish life is important to us, they will sense it and learn. If not, they will also learn. If you show them that making Shabbos with candles, dinner, Kiddush and shul is important enough to make the extra effort, they will learn. If not they will also learn.
Shabbos can be 1/7th of our lives—1/7th of our time spent basking in the Shechina, the Presence of Gd and the love of life and family. It is, as the Torah (Ex. 31:17) suggests in last weeks parsha, ot hi (a sign) of love between us and Gd. My friends, our Luxury Cruise Liner Shabbat awaits only our desire to set sail. Amen!