On Shabbat

October 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | Leave a comment
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I had the opportunity to talk with some of the seniors at our high school last week.  They are studying world religions and I shared with them my experience of being Jewish and some background on Judaism.  This is the fourth year I have been invited to do this, and have enjoyed it each time.  The students always come up with great questions, which together with the fact that I have to pull a presentation together, turns it into a chance for me to take another look at my life as a Jew, as a woman, an American, musician, mother, daughter, friend, wife, teacher, etc.

In the midst of each year’s talk, I explain about the idea of Shabbat, the Sabbath.  Their teacher pointed out that one of the ten commandments is that we should observe it.  Of course, as soon as something is required, any of us who have issues with authority start to bargain with and resist.  And not only is there the commandment itself, but also the list of thirty-nine acts that are prohibited on that day.  Talk about a great way to stir up creative rule-bending/breaking!!  So why – and in what ways – do I observe it?

Ironically it was a Christian friend of mine who first inspired me to consider the possibility.  She was a neighbor of ours at the time, in a rural section of town that had first been settled as a large orchard.  All the homes, built mostly between 1920 and 1940, had the feel of old farmhouses, and our neighborhood had many qualities of the quintessential old-fashioned small town.  Our children (her three daughters and my two) were together often, swinging in one backyard or the other, going to a neighbor’s pool for their swimming lessons each morning, and playing house on rainy days.  My friend and I were both of like minds about letting our girls be little girls for as long as possible, resisting the urge to rush into all the extra-curricular activities, and keeping our families’ lives as simple as we could.  Somewhere in there she decided to make Sunday a real Sabbath, and she shared her thoughts with me.

I was at the time studying Judaism through a local chapter of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-school, which offers a marvelous two-year curriculum now available in 60 cities throughout the US, England, Canada, and Australia.  My teacher, a modern day mystic, cultivated for our class a rich and deep foundation for learning.  When the subject of Shabbat came up, the seeds had already been planted by my neighbor, and I decided to explore it by trying to experience it.

The traditional interpretation of the Sabbath comes from the Creation story, which tells us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  Obviously, many modern Americans in the Judeo-Christian world do not take that literally, but the idea of a day of rest is still a valuable one.  Just as we need to sleep at night, we also need to plant breaks into our daily rhythm.  Practices of many kinds recommend taking two to five minutes every hour to get up, whether from the desk or assembly line, take a walk around the room, do some deep breathing.  We digest our meals better if we pause from what we are doing to eat them.  Most studies reveal that if we work too long without a reprieve, we become less productive.

I have to admit that the very first time I heard about the Jewish Shabbat, I stepped right up onto a feminist soapbox.  I was nursing Rachel, a toddler at the time, and Chloe had just turned six.  As a mother of young children, I was not going to get much of a rest, and I spoke up – hotheadedly – to protest that Shabbat was perhaps more about men getting a rest than the women who really needed it.  The person teaching that class was diplomatic, helping to make it a little less black-and-white than the territory into which I had leapt, but I was only a little bit consoled.  Those were my reactive days, and my learning curve was steep enough that I pretty much had to put the kernel of the Shabbat concept aside.  What my family did do at that point was simple (though not easy) and basic.  On Friday nights we ate in the dining room instead of the kitchen, and we lit candles and said blessings over our juice and bread.

So now, two years later, I decided to see what Saturday could feel like, now that our Friday night ritual was intact.  To be honest, I remember no details of the day itself.  What I remember is that I reached a moment of great discomfort.  I wanted to do something.  DO, with a capital D.  And that’s when it hit me that my life was centered around everything I was doing, and what I needed was to take a break from that by just being.  This was not about what my hands were doing.  I could nurse Rachel and at the same time be focused on all the things I was going to accomplish during her ensuing nap, which was what I did all week long.  Or I could sit and nurse Rachel and have it be totally about nursing Rachel.  I could chop carrots for dinner and be thankful that I could feed something nourishing and tasty to my family.  I could breathe more deeply if all I was paying attention to in that moment was my breath.

What came to me that day was that observing the Shabbat is about taking that day to be mindful and present, and not about doing, no matter what I was in fact doing.

So last week, as I stood in front of that class of seniors, summarizing briefly my understanding of Shabbat, I found myself filled with a longing for a real Shabbat.  Fast forward from those precious days with my young girls to now:  Chloe away at college and Rachel a full-fledged teenager, in every sense of the word.  Some Friday nights Dan, Rachel and I are actually home, and we set the dining room table for three, light the candles and say the blessings.  If we are not too exhausted, we play a box game or watch a DVD after dinner and dessert.  Many Fridays Rachel and I have violin classes and we get home after 7:00, to that blessed dinner, prepared and set out by Dan.  Some Friday nights are centered around something that precludes our dining room altogether.  Saturdays are often so busy I totally forget it is actually Shabbat.

The gift of doing things like speaking to a class at the high school and writing this blog is that it gives me the chance to take another look at something.  Pulled away so gradually from the purity of my practice in those early years when the girls were young, I had completely forgotten that I can still carry the spirit of Shabbat with me, no matter the circumstances.  In my own mind – and heart – I can make everything within those fully-booked Saturdays more about being there than about what I am accomplishing.  I’ve had a lot of practice.

 

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