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Dear Rabbi Scott

02/10/2022 08:45:00 AM


Rabbi Scott Hausman -Weiss

A couple of weeks ago, I received a “delicious” email.  A young Bat Mitzvah student named Violet, from Birmingham, whom I named some 12+ years ago, wrote me with the request to offer my thoughts on the meaning of Shabbat.  While watching Abraham sleep through his anesthesia-induced, post-surgery haze, I found a moment to respond to Violet’s question, which went something like this: 

Dear Rabbi Scott, the Torah portion for my Bat Mitzvah is Vayakhel, and I am writing about Shabbat. Would you please share with me, ‘what does Shabbat mean to you?’” 

So here’s my response:

Dear Violet, 

What a lovely email you sent me. I apologize for not having had a chance to write you back before today but as your mom may have mentioned, my son, Abraham had to have some surgery and so we’ve been with him in Madison, Wi where he lives now.  

But, that said, I am so glad that you reached out to me, and it is my honor to share with you my thoughts about Shabbat. I think it's a really interesting question, especially from a liberal Jewish point of view. You know, in the more traditional parts of our community, the answer to why God commands us to observe Shabbat is simple – because God commanded it. But in the liberal Jewish world, which I know you and your family live within, observing Shabbat takes a different kind of effort to make it meaningful.  

You may have learned about a very famous 20th century Rabbi, named Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He wrote a book called, The Sabbath, and in it, he wrote lots of beautiful teachings about the meaning of Shabbat. At the core of Heschel’s argument is that modern Western life is dominated by an obsession with the “world of space"...with building, and mastering, and conquering things of space. But life becomes far more difficult, Heschel writes, “when the control of space, the acquisition of things in space, becomes our sole concern.”  His teachings call on us to reconsider our priorities and relax our attachment to “thinghood,” shifting our attention to the “thingless and insubstantial” reality of time. This may sound complicated so let me see if I can break it down.

In short, Shabbat is good for the soul. One of the best things I ever learned about Shabbat and the meaning of life, I learned from our Los Angeles accountant many years ago. Whenever we met with him about our taxes, he would always conclude our meeting with, “And never forget, we are called human beings, not human doings.”  Little did I know then that he was quoting Rabbi Heschel! 

Additionally, there is a phrase in the Aleinu prayer that reads: Bayom hahu, yiheyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad.  “And on that day, God will be One and God’s name will be One.” The spiritual message of Shabbat is that it is to be a taste of the world to come. This messianic dream for the world is one colored by connection, meaning and unity – all felt and experienced by all people, no matter their race, ethnicity, culture, or even religion. Shabbat is our weekly reminder that the disconnectedness we sometimes or often feel, isn’t the way it is supposed, or the way it has to be.  Shabbat is not about a series of restrictions of what one cannot do. It is instead a series of expansions for what one can be and connections we can build with others.

Now, what does this look like, practically as Reform or Liberal Jews? For starters, it’s about making decisions for Shabbat “to happen,” for you and your family.  Making decisions (like I know your family often does) that other activities, responsibilities, and tasks can wait for the sake of individual and family unity.  But it isn’t all or nothing.  Setting aside Friday night for dinner with family is terrific.  Making dinner special in how you talk to each other.  Choosing to spend time at home, at the park, or doing something that isn’t part of the “To-Do” list - these are “Shabbat decisions.” Finally, one of Heschel's most special contributions to the idea of Shabbat is the concept that Shabbat is a “Sanctuary in Time.”  Instead of imagining a physical sanctuary that we “sit in,” try “building” time into your life that acts like a shelter of peace, a safe space, an opportunity to connect. That is the meaning of Shabbat in my view.

I hope this helps!

Rabbi Scott 

Wed, October 5 2022 10 Tishrei 5783