Friday, September 28, 2012

Kol Nidre Sermon 5773: Zocher shabbos and How to Make Shabbat

Someone asked the famous rabbi of Rymanov, “Where lies the superiority of Yom Kippur, that it is called Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of Sabbaths? Is not Shabbat also called Shabbat Shabbaton, unto the Lord? The rabbi replied, “I see that you do not read the Torah with care … indeed of Shabbat it is written “Shabbat shabbaton unto the Lord,” but about Yom Kippur it is written Shabbat shabbaton hu lachem, to you [for the people]. On Yom Kippur we draw the Presence of God down, closer to us!
At most congregations, Yom Kippur must be the best attended Shabbat! Yet, Shabbat is a Jewish holiday that comes every week!
Shabbat is the only Jewish holiday that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. In the book of Exodus we read, "Zachor … Remember Shabbat to keep it holy," (Exodus 20:8). In Deuteronomy the wording is different. In chapter 5 we read, "Shamor, keep Shabbat to make it holy," (Deuteronomy 5:12). 
The first stanza of the well-known Friday evening prayer, L’cha dodi, reads:
Shamor ve-zachor be-dibbur echad, hishmi’anu el ha-m’yuchad
keep and remember: A single command the Only God caused us to hear;
What does it mean that God “caused us to hear” two commandments as ONE? According to a famous midrash, at Sinai, God did what no human being can do: God uttered two distinct words, zachor/shamor at the same time. Let me demonstrate with the help of our wonderful choir [have them do it].
Tradition teaches us that shamor/observe, refers to mitzvoth instructing us what NOT to do; those things we should not do on Shabbat. In traditional terms, they include working, kindling fire, cooking, washing, conducting business. On the other hand "zachor/remember" refers to those mitzvoth that we should do; those things that we do on Shabbat such as lighting candles, reciting kiddush, attending services.
In traditional circles, someone who observes all the restrictions of Shabbat is called a shomer shobbes. For more than two hundred years now, our Reform movement has rejected being shomer shabbes. In some cases, we even went as far as declaring Sunday as our day for services.
Although in recent years, our movement has welcomed a rapprochement to tradition it is clear to me that the paradigm of shomer shabbes has not appealed to Jews who choose to join Reform congregations. The restrictions concerning work, shopping, and participating in secular activities is meaningless to most of us. Yet, Shabbat can still be relevant. Celebrating Shabbat was crafted by our ancestors with one purpose in mind: to connect us to God and to lead us to be ethical, moral human beings. You could say, “Shabbat is as Jewish as a corn-beef sandwich,” so we need to find a place for Shabbat in our lives.
Like many Jews before me, I went through a period when I wanted to experiment with Shabbat. Everything seemed to come together during my first year of rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. I rented an apartment that was all set up for Shabbat –including a Shabbat timer. Basically, you set it up so that the lights go off right before bedtime on Friday night. Since I had everything I needed for a “true” Shabbat experience, my roommate and I decided to be shomer shobbes for a year. We reasoned that being future rabbis, we should have the experience of being shomer shobbes at least once in our lifetime. We did everything: No cooking, no TV or radio or computers, no traveling –I walked 45 minutes each way many times, on Shabbat morning, to attend HUC’s services. I did Kiddush, 3 meals, havdalah, attended the local Orthodox synagogue, and took lots of naps!
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests a way to describe non-Orthodox Jews who are serious about Shabbat, as zocheir shabbes. Rabbi Kushner teaches, “One who is zocheir Shabbat would remember throughout the day’s duration that it was Shabbat. (Not as easy as it […] sounds.) We say to one another, do anything you want—as long as you will remember it is Shabbat and that will insure that whatever you do will be lichvod Shabbatfor the honor of Shabbat.”
I am glad I was able to experience being shomer shabbos. I learned a lot about Shabbat and it made me put “keeping Shabbat” into perspective. Although being a shomer shabbes is not for me, I developed an appreciation for the “DO mitzvot” of Shabbat. I see myself as a zocher shabbos for sure.
Being a zocher shabbos means making time to “make Shabbat” on a regular basis. For instance, honoring Shabbat: doing things lichvod Shabbat, because Shabbat is coming. They can include preparing for the upcoming Shabbat by bathing, having a haircut, and cleaning and beautifying the home -with flowers, for example. We can have a haircut any day, right? Why not have it in honor of Shabbat? Then, on Shabbat itself, we may choose to wear festive clothing and refrain from unpleasant conversation. Of course, we can go the whole “nine yards” and recite Kiddush and light candles … and attend services.
I know that for some of us, doing any of these Shabbat things might be quite foreign. But they need not be. In this New Year I would like to offer my help.  I want to help our families and individuals to feel a sense of ownership of Shabbat. In the coming year, I’ll begin a “pilot” program, “Shabbat Basket.” Once a month or so, I will come to your home on Friday at around 5 or so, with a “Shabbat Basket” containing all the necessary elements for making Shabbat: Kiddush wine, grape juice, challah, candles, etc, and of course, a rabbi! Remember: It is not about the food or how fancy your house might be. It is about doing something to remember Shabbat. It will open to every one of our member households, NO matter your age or knowledge, or what side of town you live in. It will be a great learning opportunity for you as well as a good way for me to get to know you a bit better. I pray that you will consider it. There is a sign up sheet in the lobby –I would love to see as many names as possible! I will get in touch with you with more details and to set a date [Pause].
You may say, “but rabbi, doing Shabbat on Friday night just does not work for me.” It’s fine, I understand, sometimes it doesn’t work for rabbinical households either! During the first five years I served the Jewish community of Lima, Ohio, I lived in Cincinnati –about two hours away. I traveled to Lima 3 weekends a months, so it was not possible for Kris to come every time. I soon realized that Kris and I could not have regular Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings. So, we decided to REMEMBER Shabbat on Thursday evenings. We would do a special dinner on Thursday in honor of Shabbat, and spend that special time together.
Where there is a will … there is a way. It might not be the Orthodox way –it might not even be the way that other people are doing Shabbat, but if we CHOOSE to remember Shabbat every week, we WILL find a way that works for you and for your family.
In addition to honoring Shabbat, it is a mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat; it’s what we call oneg Shabbat. Yes, I know oneg shabbat means the refreshments after Friday night services, but oneg Shabbat is much more than that. Oneg Shabbat is a great way of being a zocher Shabbat. Oneg Shabbat means engaging in pleasurable activities such as eating, singing, spending time with the family and friends … and attending services (have I mentioned that before?).
I believe that whatever each one of us decides to do to remember Shabbat, it must be a personal decision. As Jews, we all need to develop our own personal way of making Shabbat a special day. Since Shabbat is at a personal choice, let me give you a personal example of what I mean by “remembering Shabbat.” This is certainly an example of oneg Shabbat!
Some of you may know that I like opera. As an opera fan, attending the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is a must. I attended for the first time in 2003. Just being there was impressive, but I wanted it to be really special. So, I did some research … I found out that during the 2003-2004 season the Met, after 70 years, was going to put up a production of an opera composed in 1835 by a Jewish composer, on a Jewish theme. I had to go! But when I looked for tickets for La juive (The Jewess), the only day that worked for us was a Friday evening. I did hesitate but then I thought, “how appropriate!” So, that Shabbat I had my special evening: First time at the Met, listening to an opera by a Jewish composer, on a Jewish theme … and did I mention that the tenor, Neil Schicoff, was the son of a cantor and former student at HUC cantorial school, and that he performed the most famous aria from the opera wearing his dad’s tallis?
So, I wonder, was I keeping Shabbat that evening? Probably not, but I was very aware that it was Shabbat –I was honoring and remembering Shabbat. For me, that evening at the Met, was a religious experience, very shabbesdik. I can tell you: I surely was a zocher shabbes. The fact that it was Shabbat made it so much more meaningful to me.
Many of us were taught that being a good Jew is doing what the Orthodox Jews do, and that IF I were to be a “religious” Jew, I would do what they do. Keeping Shabbat is not more important, or more authentic, than remembering Shabbat. I do not believe that the real Jews are ONLY those who keep Shabbat. What we do for Shabbat is a personal matter, but that does not mean that it ought to be self-centered. One of the main components of Shabbat is sharing it with a community. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but attending services on Shabbat is a way of both honoring Shabbat and enjoying Shabbat. [Pause] It gets lonely around here on Shabbat …
The beauty of Shabbat is that all generations can participate and find a meaningful experience here at our congregation during the year. If you travel, I encourage you to attend Shabbat services wherever you go; you’ll meet interesting people and will experience the richness of the Jewish worlds.  Summer is a great time for getting a full dose of Shabbat, our youngsters do so at Jewish camps –if you knew how much they enjoy Shabbat at camp you would want to be a child all over again! I would …
This summer, after a 15-year hiatus, I decided to spend time working at a Jewish camp, you might have heard of it, it’s called GUCI. I happened to pick the last two weeks in June thinking the weather would cooperate. Yet, Indiana’s early summer broke all records (mind you dry heat!). Despite the weather, I doubt that any of the campers had a less exciting summer than otherwise. I know I had a great time being part of the faculty and enjoyed the legendary ruach at GUCI.
After a week of shvitzing at breakfast, at lunch, during programs, at t’filot, etc., it was hard to visualize the transformation the camp experiences as we welcome Shabbat. Visitors from all over the country flock to camp for Shabbat: former campers, counselors, staff as well as spouses, children of those working at camp –a spot at the Shabbat table is highly sought after months in advance.
So, what’s all the fuss about Shabbat at camp? I have experienced Shabbat at other camps before, but the great anticipation given in everyone’s descriptions of the evening confirmed that this was special. I could not fathom how campers had managed to save a set of clean clothes! But there they were, all prepped up and ready to welcome Shabbat. At GUCI, Shabbat begins with a “Shabbat Walk,” from the upper regions of the camp, to the “lower” cabins section. As our Shabbat walk winded down to the various areas of camp, I wondered how could they all look so radiant and happy? I knew, in my mind, that they were the same campers and counselors, but I could perceive that something had changed them: Shabbat had worked its magic –tears well in my eyes. I am happy with my age and my life’s journey, but at that instant, I wished I had had their opportunity if for a second I could be a camper … and welcome Shabbat.
A midrash explains that when God was preparing to give the Torah to the Jews, God said that God had something extraordinary to give them if they would accept the commandments and the Torah. The Jews asked what that could be, and God replied that it was the “world-to-come.” The Jews wanted to know what it was like, and God answered that it was just like Shabbat because the world to come is simply one long Shabbat. I may add, one long Shabbat Camp-style!
The image the midrash conjures is indeed beautifully simple: Shabbat is me’ein olam habah, Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. On this Yom Kippur, this Shabbat shabbaton, when we attempt to bring down God’s presence among us, let us realize that the opportunity for connecting with God, with our people, with each other, presents itself every week, when Shabbat enters.
As we begin a New Year, we are called upon to do t’shuvah, repentance, return. True t’shuvah can be reached when, placed in the same situation, we do not miss the opportunity to do what’s right. True t’shuvah is a resolution NOT to repeat our past mistakes, NOT to repeat our past omissions, BUT to choose wisely. Whether you were born Jewish or not, you have chosen to be Jewish. You are here tonight, Judaism matters to you, and Shabbat is an essential way of expressing Judaism. Remember the famous words, “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” Let us resolve to choose Shabbat again. Let us all resolve to be zocher shabbos, to remember Shabbat, in whichever way it speaks to us, whether it may be hosting a “Shabbat Basket,” or having a special meal with family or friends, studying Torah with your rabbi or, yes, attending services … In the year ahead, may we all have a taste of that world that may one day come, but that we can bring down here every week as we remember Shabbat together. L’shanah tovah, and tzom kal, an easy fast!