During a Shabbat Symposium held in 2007, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz said, “Let’s start with the main problem. We don’t take God very seriously. If we took God seriously, we would want to say hello once in a while. If we took the covenant between God and the Jews seriously, we would want to renew our [covenantal] relationship with God and with the Jews as a community every once in a while. And if we did that, if we cared about that, we would have a little sense of what it means to have a day that is holy. Holy has something to do with God. And that it has to be on Saturday is because this is a Jewish community thing and not just an individual thing, even though you are doing it by yourself.
Shabbat observance 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. But in the last 200 years, we, as a people, have struggled with keeping Shabbat. Decades ago, our response to the challenges of Shabbat observance led our Reform movement to emphasize, “Make Friday night Shabbat.” Limiting our observance of Shabbat to Friday night (or to Sunday in some cases) allowed us to avoid many of our conflicts with American culture (shopping, errands, sports, which take place on Saturday).
In the book of Exodus, the Torah uses superlatives for Shabbat –words like covenant (B’rit) for all time and a sign (ot) for all time. The implication is that we should take this mitzvah very seriously. Yet, what the Torah requires of us regarding Shabbat seems a bit different than what our Sages suggest. In the Talmud we read, “Shabbat is committed to your keeping, not you to its keeping. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b). A great midrash says, “Six days you will labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). But is it possible for us to do all our work in six days? Rather, we should rest as though all our work were finished.” (Midrash M’chilta, Yitro 7).
The rabbis understood that we need a more attainable goal: Keep Shabbat but not at the expense of your own well-being; work but do not rush to finish everything before Shabbat –lest you are too tired to enjoy it! Observing Shabbat means being nice to yourselves: take a shower, put on clean, nicer clothes, and make time to study and eat special food. In the year ahead, I invite everyone of us to face the struggle of keeping Shabbat head on; I would like that each one of us, as individuals as well as a community, can find our place in the chain of Shabbat observance. Stepping back from our lives to see the “bigger picture” doesn’t come naturally to us. The day of Shabbat was created to help us do just that: It can be an antidote to so much of what worries us about the world in which we live today.