Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ode to Cholent

The German poet Heinrich Heine was born in Dusseldorf, Rhineland in 1797. His Jewish education was quite sparse and his family’s religious observances minimal.  In response to the Prussian government’s increasingly Antisemitic laws, Heine made a pro-forma conversion to Protestantism in 1825, citing it as “the entry ticket into European culture.” He was later to claim that he had never left his Jewishness.
 The Damascus Affair of 1840 reignited Heine’s Jewish self-identification and feelings of protection toward his fellow Jews.  The same year he published “Princess Sabbath,” part of his “Hebrew Melodies” collection.  Although the work is shot through with humor and irony, his affection for his ancestral faith is evident.  Contained in its lines is his tongue-in-cheek “Ode to Schalet[1],” modeled after Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” set to music by Beethoven in his 9th Symphony.
"Schalet, ray of light immortal !
Schalet, daughter of Elysium ! "
So had Schiller's song resounded,
Had he ever tasted schalet.

"For this schalet is the very-
Food of heaven, which, on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses
In the secret of preparing,

"At the time He also taught him
And revealed in flames of lightning
All the doctrines good and pious.
And the holy Ten Commandments."

With that, here are two recipes, one for cholent, the other for its Sephardic brother, chamin or dafina.

[1] i.e. Cholent

Monday, May 30, 2011

Oneg Shabbat - When Food is More than Food

I was concerned – my ten day old infant had slept most of the night.  “Isn’t that good?” my husband said.  “At a month, maybe, but not at this age.”  He would begin feeding only to fall asleep within a few moments, then wake and begin again.  “We’ll ask the doctor tomorrow.”
“That can’t be right,” I said to the nurse.  We weighed the baby again.  And again.  And again.  He’d lost seven ounces in a week.  Dr. K took one look at the baby and grew serious.  He gently pinched the baby’s skin, watched as the indentation very slowly refilled, then said, “You’re going to the Hospital right now.”
Friday morning it became clear that baby and I would remain in the hospital over Shabbat.  My room was equipped with motion-activated lights.  The shared parents’ bathroom boasted motion-activated lights and faucets.  The family room refrigerator lit-up when opened.  And to get back to my room I’d have to press a button to open the doors to the NICU.
A late afternoon move shuffled several patients to install me in the one and only non-electronic room on the floor.  The nurse had unscrewed the light-bulb in the fridge; I would follow others into the NICU as they passed through the electronic doors.  As for food…well, I had no way of heating anything, so my rice-crackers and fruit would have to do.  My husband was “making Shabbat” with our children at home.
But I hadn’t counted on Batya.  She sent over a large box of food.  And not just any food: home-made Shabbat food.  So, while the NICU’s family room filled with anguished parents on their cell-phones and the TV blared celebrity gossip and reality shows, I was making my own reality at a corner table: fresh challah rolls, matzah ball soup, chicken – even dessert.  Far from being a mere sop to the body, this food made Shabbat, bringing its spirit into my soul, too.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Students of JLI

Today’s post is the first in an occasional series about you - the students of JLI.  This we we’re meeting Chaya Crane, who attends Rabbi Yisroel Altein’s classes in Pittsburgh, PA.
Chaya’s first exposure to Chabad came in San Francisco’s Richmond Torah Center, where she reveled in Rabbi Aron Hecht’s depth of knowledge.  When she moved to Lafayette, LA, Chaya found that a community so tiny that everyone – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – belonged to one shul.  But smallness had its plusses.  They shared runs up to The Kosher Cajun for meat, take turns delivering the Shabbat drashah, and supported their fellow Jews with pride and enthusiasm.  High Holidays, a number of shul members stayed with Rabbi Rivkin and family in New Orleans.  Chaya moved from Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina hit, but continues to photographically document its inhabitants, finding profound inspiration in the resilience of the human spirit.  She witnessed how people can “not only make do, but make joy, against all odds.” 
Chaya is passionate about connection, especially the link between our rich heritage and the exciting future that technological advances promise.  As professor of media arts, she examines the impact of technology on design and how it shapes our choices.  Her zeal for connection and art really come together in her involvement dating Jewish ritual objects rescued from post-Holocaust Europe.  In a fairly miraculous turn of events she was reunited with an antique Italian Torah scroll belonging to her great-grandfather that had been lost in the Holocaust.
Chaya shared a few of her treasures, including pieces from her spice-box collection.  Delicate stems bear dainty flowers, the pods hold the spices.  A 10-inch tall silver castle is topped by a bird on its spire, two more perch on the elaborately curved handles on either side.  But the most striking piece is her Judenstern – Jewish Star.  This brass candelabrum was traditionally used for kindling Shabbat lights.  Hers is probably Italian, with eight points radiating from the central oil well.  As I gaze at it, time falls away, and I see Chaya - or myself, or you - lowering the Judenstern and ushering in the Shabbat.
But when I ask, Chaya says her favorite piece is a Kiddush cup found floating in the waters of Katrina.  Heavily patinaed, it still bore the price tag of a local synagogue gift-shop.  “Your heritage gives you strength to believe in a future.”

Chaya provided an excerpt of an article about Judenstern if you want to know more.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Shabbat: a Gift of Love

The beautiful still photography featured in the video is by Yocheved Amrami Sidof.
Yocheved’s path to photography was anything but typical.  With a degree in psychology, she set out to help people, working with families struggling over custody issues and kids with “issues.”  Serendipity led her to volunteer with a group bringing arts to children, where she fell in love with combining Torah with creativity.

For Yocheved, psychology and photography are a natural match.  “It’s all about people.  I went into psychology to help people, to understand them.  I’m fascinated by people. I want to know, What’s their story?  What makes them tick?   I connect with people and uncover their magic in photography, too.”

The candle-lighting photo shoot really resonated with Yocheved.  Her daughter had just turned three, and Yocheved and her husband Yosef decided to celebrate the moment with palpable ceremony.  “I wanted her to feel real joy at doing the mitzvah for the first time.”  They invited about thirty people to witness this milestone and Yocheved brought out her camera to capture it.  “There’s a tension – on the one hand it’s a celebration, yet it’s a personal private moment.  It’s you and the candles and G-d.  That’s the ultimate message.”  In the video Yocheved takes you into this private moment behind the hands, as the light seeps through the fingers and shadows fall across the face.

As a photographer, Yocheved enters into the sacred space of people’s most personal moments: wedding, brit milah, bat-mitzvah.  But recently her most powerful experience was filming the funeral of a Torah scroll.  The basement of a Chabad House had flooded and many of the Torah scrolls were damaged beyond repair.  As with the burial of a person, the Torah was wrapped in shrouds, carried to its grave with love and reverence, kaddish was said.  It made clear that a Torah scroll is so much more than a mere physical object.

Yocheved and her husband Yosef host an average of twenty people every Shabbat.  They come, they bring their friends and their friends’ friends.  For Yocheved it’s another opportunity to meet people and to express her creativity – this time, in the kitchen.  “It’s a selfish pleasure – and my kids love it.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shabbat: the Gift of Connection

To this day, I don’t know how the brown paper wrapped package arrived at my friend Aviva’s house.  I looked at the British stamps, tore off the wrapping and dug through wads of tissue paper to find a single brass candlestick.  I stood it on the table, stared at the candlestick’s three arched feet and carefully carved body.  There were no markings on the bottom.  Mystified, I turned to the card which bore wedding congratulations from Lisette, an old family friend from before my parents had taken on Jewish observance.  She’d known me since I was a little girl.
In my polite but puzzled thank-you note I asked if there was a “story” behind this single candlestick.  There was.
Lisette stemmed from a titled Austrian family but married Ben, a Jew from Poland.  In 1939, five days before Rosh Hashanah, the Nazis invaded his hometown of Radom on Shabbat.  A short time later they set fire to the city’s shul.  Somehow Ben’s mother gained access to the shul, carrying out one candlestick.  It had been one of a pair, lit every erev Shabbat by the shul’s shammash.  Its mate, like Europe’s Jews, perished in the conflagration.

Radom's main shul.  In its place a monument now stands

This was my gift.  Lisette had entrusted me with a mute survivor.
Some Fridays as I light my candles I feel the weight of responsibility this small candlestick carries with it. Or I think of Ben and his mother, and the shammash of Radom.  Other times I marvel at the soul connection that can transcend time and space, between bodies that have never met. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Mysterious Peace of Shabbat Candles

Today's post is from guest-blogger Rebecca O'Connell, who also blogs at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Story Pockets.  Rebecca is the author of two Penina Levine books, as well as Four Sides, Eight Nights.

Two years ago, I’d gone crying to my friend Leah for help. There was trouble in my extended family, and it was affecting my immediate family. Leah listened as I sobbed out the whole tortured story.
She suggested I light Shabbat candles.
Well, I thought, it couldn’t hurt.
The following Friday, we lit the candles. They weren’t special Shabbat candles, just some candle-ends I had lying around. I didn’t see the need to invest in a box of special candles.  I wasn’t sure we’d be doing this week after week.

As much as I respected Leah, I was still pretty skeptical about this whole idea.  How could lighting Shabbat candles affect my family problems? My extended family didn’t even know we were lighting them.  If they did know, they’d probably make fun of me for turning into a religious fanatic. I was making fun of myself for turning into a religious fanatic, and worried my husband and son would think I was turning into one too.
It turns my husband and son didn’t mind my candle-lighting as much as they minded my sniffling, moaning, obsessive recounting of my extended-family-woes. If lighting the Shabbat candles could  keep me from tracking misery all over the house, then they were all for it. And besides, they had spiritual lives too. Lighting the candles on Friday night could offer all of us a chance to pause, to reflect, to feel grateful, maybe to pray.
It worked. It seemed to work. I’m still mystified as to how or why, but lighting the Shabbat candles has been important to us.  In the past two years, I’ve taken up knitting and given it up.  I’ve begun an exercise regimen and forgotten all about it. But the candle-lighting has endured. And I think it will. I hope so.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Secret Stories of Lecha Dodi

This week you studied Lecha Dodi, Come O Bride, composed by Rabbi Shlomo Ha-Levi Alkabetz.  Rabbi Shlomo was born in Thessaloniki around 1500 and lived in Adrianople and Safed.  He was one of a select group of Kabbalists there, including his famous brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.
As was their custom, the Kabbalists would dress in white garments and walk through the streets of until they reached the fields on the eastern outskirts of the city.  There they sang six psalms for the six days of creation.  And they sang Rabbi Shlomo’s composition:
   "Lecha Dodi ... Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride.
    Let us welcome the Shabbos. ... Shake the dust off
    yourself, arise, don your glorious garments - my people ...
    Awake, awake, utter a sing ... The L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd
    is one.  Come in peace, Shabbos Queen!" 

But a neighboring Arab farmer was angered by the tramping past his field, convinced that these mystics were somehow jinxing his lone fig tree, which no longer bore fruit.  He watched them for some weeks and determined the cause of his misfortune: the one they called Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. 
When he saw the holy man alone one day, the farmer seized the opportunity and murdered the man, burying him beneath the fig tree.   When the tree suddenly became fruitful, it was only a matter of time before the horrible secret came to light.
Fast forward 500+ years to a synagogue in Israel.  A congregant has just invited a stranger home for Shabbat dinner.  The young guest, Machi, is shy and doesn’t say much.  But when asked to name a song he’d like to hear, he mentions that tune they sang in synagogue.  So they sing Lecha Dodi.  Again and again.  And again.
When Machi reveals he’s from the Arab city of Ramallah, his hosts are startled.  “But I’m Jewish,” he says.  He was raised as a Muslim, but when he began to question and defied his father’s authority, he was told to leave.  It was Machi's mother who caught him in a quiet corner,  whispered that she – and he – were Jewish, and pressed a photograph into his hand.  “My grandparents standing in front of a Jewish grave – a great ancestor of ours.”
Machi pulled out the photo; the host looked.  Behind Machi's grandparents, the inscription on the grave was clearly legible.  “Rabbi Shlomo son of Rabbi Moshe Ha-Levi Alkabetz.  Composer of the song Lecha Dodi.”

Shabbat Shalom.
Adapted from Safed: The Mystical City, by David Rossoff, p. 80. and Monsey, Kiryat Sefer, and Beyond by Zev Roth

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Make Mystical Challah

In Temple times, we were obligated to give 24 gifts to the Kohanim, among them, “challah” – a piece of every batch of dough.  Kabbalists say that the blessings from this mitzvah are so great that every woman should try to make her own challah at least once a year.
Baking challah in honor of Shabbat also forms a deeply personal service.  Aside from the personal prayer said while separating the challah, there are various kavanot (intentions) to have while preparing the dough. 
Before beginning, it’s customary to put a coin in a charity box.  Some recite chapter 90 of Psalms at this point, too.  Think or verbalize that one is fulfilling the mitzvah of hafrashat challah.
As you pour water into the bowl focus on its symbolism of Torah and faith.  Ask G-d to strengthen your faith and that of your family members.  Water is a binding agent, pray for unity with G-d, within your family and our nation. 
Oil signifies health and abundance.   Request abundant health for your family.  Oil is produced by crushing.  The hardships of life are meant to manifest our essence and our light.
Add honey or sugar.  Pray for a sweet life, full of love and acts of kindness.  Am I sweet enough to those I interact with?  Add a little more for extra sweetness in the week ahead.
Sprinkle in the yeast.  Yeast symbolizes spiritual growth.  Ask for positive growth.  In Hebrew the word yeast, shmarim, is a cognate of to guard.  Please, G-d, watch over us and protect us.  As the yeast blooms pray for joy and happiness to bubble up in your life and that you should feel joy for others’ blessings.
While sifting the flour ask G-d to help you refine your sensitivities, to distinguish good from bad, to focus on the positive while discarding unhelpful thoughts and feelings.  Some women sing Jewish songs while sifting. Flour represents sustenance; pray for “kosher” and abundant sustenance from G-d. 
Keep the salt away from the yeast.  Salt represents severity and limits.  It’s crucial to know how to balance one’s own needs against those of one’s family and  work.  But these must not be overdone or harsh, so shake off a little salt. 
If you add eggs, think about fertility and that everything you put your hand to should be blessed with fruition.

While you knead the dough, pray.  This is an auspicious time to recite the names of those seeking their mate, health, good livelihood.   When the dough is smooth (or you’re finished praying ) ’anoint’ the dough with oil.  Ask G-d to send us our anointed one – Mashiach.

Cover the dough and set it to rise (dance).  Once it’s doubled in size, punch down the dough and knead it (you can pray some more here).

While standing, recite the blessing “lehafrish challah.”  Separate a piece of dough and lift it up.  Say, “Behold, this is challah.”  Recite the techinah.  Burn the separated dough and discard it.  Now you are ready to shape and bake your loaves.

Thank you Mrs. Tzivia Chaya Rosenthal for allowing us to film her challah-making service.
The kavanot shared here are from Mrs. Devorah Heller, a.k.a. The Challah Lady and Mrs. Miriam Rhodes of Bat-Ayin, Israel.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday the Rabbi Thought it was Shabbat

One Wednesday, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi found himself at a brit-milah with his grandfather, the great Rebbe Chaim of Sanz.  At the celebratory meal that followed, the Rebbe was asked to share some Torah thoughts.  Quoting the holy Rabbi Isaac Luria (colloquially known as “the Arizal") that the light of the approaching Shabbat seeps in as far as its preceding Wednesday, The Sanzer Rebbe expounded on the holiness of Shabbat.  He became so emotionally charged that upon finishing his discourse, he called out to all the celebrants, “Shabbes Shulem, Shabbes Shulem!”
Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi ran home as if on fire, grabbed his Shabbat attire, and hurried to the mikveh to immerse himself for the coming Shabbat.  On the way  he met another celebrant from the brit-milah and they rushed off together.  Arriving there, they were shocked to see the mikveh empty.  It was then that they realized that the Rebbe’s excitement and passion for Shabbat had infused that ordinary Wednesday with the feeling of Shabbat.

Erev Shabbat is the bridge that takes us from mundane to holy.  On the first Erev Shabbat in existence Adam and Eve were created.  On Erev Shabbat their descendents create the world – the world of Shabbat.  But to get to that Shabbat world, we must also build the bridge that leads there.
A man once came to Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, asking for a blessing for his daughter.  He was deeply concerned that she did not enjoy Shabbat.  In fact, she waited with impatience for it to be over.  “What should I do?” He cried.  Rabbi Diskin asked about the girl’s participation in Shabbat preparations.  “My wife is a supreme baalebusta, and doesn’t need anyone’s help," the man said.  "She does it all herself.”  Rabbi Diskin smiled.  “No wonder your daughter doesn’t connect with Shabbat - she needs to be part of the preparations! When’s she’s involved, she will enjoy it.”

Our Shabbat enjoyment is a product of our preparation for it.  The more your family is involved, the more meaningful the Shabbat.  There are many ways to deal with the various Erev Shabbat chores.  You might make a sign-up sheet with the various tasks and have family members sign up for jobs.  You could write them on slips of paper, fold them, and put them in a jar for people to pick (this works best if every jobs is suitable for all family members).  You can add in some breathers like, “sit down and read a story to share at the Shabbat table” or “relax for five minutes and enjoy a piece of Shabbat cake.”  Your family may find that there are certain jobs they like to do, so that the same person always tidies the bathroom, prepares the kugels or sets the table. What matters is that everyone feels that his contribution is valued and appreciated!

It’s customary for the man of the house to prepare the candles for his wife to light.  Aside from putting the candles (or oil) into the candelabrum, he also lights the candles and then extinguishes them.  This preparation of the wicks allows the man to participate in the mitzvah and makes it easier for her to light the candles at the right time  - especially if she’s rushing to beat the clock!   

It is traditional for the woman of the house to bake challah on Erev Shabbat so that the mitzvah of hafrashat challah is performed on the same day as the other two “women’s mitzvot” (marital relations on Shabbat is the third mitzvah), creating a trifecta of positive deeds that pull kedushah – holiness – into every corner of the Jewish home.   
In the Talmud Erev Shabbat and Shabbat become a metaphor for life: “One who toils on Erev Shabbat will eat on Shabbat.”  The lessons of the Erev Shabbat rush may never be explicitly stated, but for those who live it the message is clear:  to succeed, we must plan ahead, follow a list, work steadily and with enthusiasm, check our progress, work with a partner, and always keep the our purpose at the forefront of our mind. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

3 Mitzvot, 2 Angels, 1 Shabbat Queen

The Talmud (Bava Batra 65a) states that when giving a gift one should be generous.  It goes on to give an example: if you’ve bestowed a well upon someone, you should also give them the path that leads to the well.  Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Ger draws a parallel to Shabbat.  The well is Shabbat, source of renewed life and blessing; the path leading to the well is Erev Shabbat.  What are the steps we take on this path that lead to the well?
The preparations for Shabbat are numerous and extensive.  There’s silver to be polished, food to be cooked and baked, rooms to be cleaned and cleared, shoes to be polished, shirts to be ironed – how will all this be done in time, and how do we prioritize?

All these to-dos are part of how we honor Shabbat.  There are many practical tips and strategies, which we’ll address tomorrow, but for now let’s explore priorities. 
“When a person leaves the synagogue on Shabbat he is accompanied home by one good angel and one bad angel.  If arriving home they find the candles lit, the table set and the beds made, the good angel prays that it should be this way next Shabbat - the bad angel must answer 'Amen' against his will.”  Shabbat 119b

There are some puzzling aspects to this Talmudic quote – do angels have “will?”  What is a “good angel” and a “bad angel?”  But I’d like to focus on the three points the angels look for: the lit candles, set table, and prepared beds. 

These three aspects of Shabbat-readiness are expressions of the three mitzvot incumbent upon women.  The lit candles are an expression of Hadlakat Neirot – lighting Shabbat and Yom Tov candles; the set table hints to Hafrashat Challah – separating a portion of dough; the prepared beds are symbolic of Family Purity. 
The main purpose of the Shabbat candles is to bring light and tranquility into the home.  In addition to their physical benefit , the candlelight brings spiritual light into the home.  This is akin to the spiritual light cast by the Temple’s menorah, lit by the High Priest.

In Temple times we gave a portion of our dough to a local Cohen.  While they can no longer eat this piece of dough, due to its holiness we continue to remove it every time we bake bread.   This represents our understanding that sustenance comes from G-d, and that we imitate Him by sustaining those around us.

The laws of ritual purity pertaining to the Temple are complex and comprehensive.  When the Temple stood, these laws applied to all those who sought to come within its gates.  Today, there are only two groups of Jews who still observe the laws of ritual purity to a meaningful extent: Cohanim and women.  Fulfilling the mitzvah of Family Purity actively invites G-d into the most personal aspect of your life and imbues your entire family and home with holiness.

Just as the Temple was the physical home for G-d’s Shechinah – Divine Presence – so too, is every Jewish home.  Shabbat is the realm of the feminine – the Shabbat Queen, the bride, the Shechinah, so it's appropriate that the most important preparations for her arrival are those performed by her counterpart -- the woman of the house. 
By preparing our homes and ourselves in these three ways we unfurl the red carpet in a royal welcome.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Prepare for Shabbat like a Talmudic Sage

Rabbi Avahu would sit on an ivory chair and fan the fire.  Rabbi Anan wore black on erev Shabbat to show that he was ready to work.
Rav Safra would roast meat; Rava would salt fish; Rav Huna would light the lamp.

Rav Papa would twine the wicks; Rav Chisda would cut beets; Rabah and Rav Yosef would chop wood.  Rabi Zeira would kindle the fire with twigs.

Rav Nachman would carry in the best crockery and foods, saying, “If Rav Ami and Rav Asi were coming, I’d do all this; so of course I should do it for Shabbat.”
Shabbat 119a

Unique among the mitzvot, Shabbat is personified, compared to a queen and a bride, and we her partner.  In Exodus (31:16) G-d commands us :Thus shall the children of Israel guard (veshamru) the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.”  Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar translates the word veshamru as to anticipate with excitement.  Thus, we are commanded no only to observe Shabbat, but to anticipate with excitement, its arrival.
While the holiness of Shabbat arrives whether we are ready or not, feeling excited requires effort on our part.  Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik laments the “forgotten erev Shabbat,” when Jews would “greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls.”  How can we create this excitement? 
Perhaps a good place to start is the image of the Shabbat Queen or the Sabbath as a bride.  The world was recently treated to the spectacle of a royal wedding with all its attendant pomp and splendor.  Knowing what attention is spent on most weddings, it’s overwhelming to imagine the energy and time it took to ensure that every detail of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s ceremony and ensuing celebration was as it should be.  The planning, the staff, the guest list and seating arrangements, the polishing of silver and cleaning of glass, the lists, the shopping, cooking, and baking; and of course the attire and grooming of the wedding couple.  But imagine, too, how much the flurry of preparations enhanced and built-up the anticipation, as the countdown began to “W-Day.”
All this is mirrored in our own homes as we count down to “W-Day,” the day we mark our official union with G-d:  Shabbat.  We make our menus, shopping lists, we cook and bake and clean.  We wash ourselves and dress in special clothes set aside for Shabbat.  We set the table for our royal guest with our best china and silverware, fresh bread and wine.  All this is not Shabbat, but is of Shabbat.  Erev comes from the word me’urav, mixed.  Erev Shabbat is mixed with a bit of Shabbat’s holiness and pleasures.  The anticipation and preparations are part of the mitzvah.

All this week we’ll be exploring Preparing for Shabbat.  Check back tomorrow for more.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lawsuit Over Jews’ Shabbos House: Work and Rest

Last year the city of Suffern, New York was forced to grapple with the Shabbat laws when it tried to uphold zoning restrictions over the principle of Freedom of Religion.  The city had denied a variance to a group of Jews who had set up a "Shabbos House" near a local hospital.   Staying at the house would mean that patients' families could walk to the hospital on Shabbat, when driving is prohibited.
But why couldn’t those Jews drive to the hospital?  Why is driving "work?"   Or turning on a light switch?  Or signing a document?  If Shabbat is about rest, wouldn’t driving be better than walking in the summer heat and winter cold? 

Author Judith Shulevitz points out that on Shabbat “you can throw a BarcaLounger across a room if you’ve got the muscles to do it,” but you can’t pluck a blade of grass.  What is the deal with resting on Shabbat?  Why can’t rest mean a relaxing game of golf, a good TV show, a book, or painting a picture?

Our sages expended no less than two entire books of the Talmud (Shabbat and Eruvin) and nearly 200 chapters in the Code of Jewish Law, getting into the nitty-gritty of Shabbat and defining work – melachah - and rest.   If you peruse the list of various forbidden activities you’ll see that its clearly not about physical labor, but rather, ritual work: we rest because G-d rested.  But what does that mean?  G-d isn’t a human; He doesn’t tire or need a break.  In fact, the Bible itself states as much in the book of Isaiah (40:28): "Do you not know? Have you not heard? The L-rd, the everlasting G-d, Creator of the wide world, grows neither weary nor faint."

So what was G-d’s “rest?” 

It was His cessation of creating, when He stayed His hand and stopped tinkering with His world.  When He allowed nature to just be.
So what is our rest?
When we stay our hands and stop tinkering with the world.  When, instead of demonstrating our mastery over the world by virtue of our ability to make more of nature than exists, we simply co-exist with nature, understanding that we are equally creations of G-d. 
So, while dragging the BarcaLounger across the livingroom might qualify as avodah, hard physical labor, it’s not melachah, creative work.  There's no essential change in the composition of the world, theres no "before" and "after."

 Rabbi Emanuel Feldman sees Shabbat rest as “photographic negative” of week-day melachah, or the use of white-space in a work of art.  “…Throughout life a person engages in two kinds of construction:  the six-days-a-week physical construction of things and objects and energy; and the seventh-day-of-the-week spiritual construction.”   Just as the white space of the negative appears black in the final image, so too, the white space of Shabbat imprints as active building in the supernal image above.

The defining characteristics of melachah derive from those labors required for our ancestors to build the Tabernacle.  This encompassed all manner of creative work, from weaving to scratching lines on a tanned hide, and utilized animal, plant, and mineral objects.  Their efforts, exercised within the realm of space and the material world, resulted in the physical Tabernacle.  On Shabbat we build a spiritual Tabernacle.  But this construction occurs within the realm of time and involves the intangible.  By staying our hands from those very activities that build within the material realm, we enter the Shabbat realm and through our non-doing, do.

So while we scurry about all week long, putting together animal and plant and mineral, on Shabbat we stand back at look at our work.  We check to see, did we leave enough white space?  Have we remembered that G-d is the Creator and Provider of all?  Are we working on our spiritual connections with as much ardor as our material ones?  Can we stop tinkering with the world long enough to realize that we and the objects we work with during the six week-days are equally creations of G-d? 

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space

In "Modern Times," Charlie Chaplin cast a wry look on life in the Industrial Age.  His Little Tramp works an assembly line, a mere cog in the factory machinery.  As efficiency and speed take the place of dignity and the legitimate need for a break, he's the guinea pig for a feeding machine that malfunctions.  When the assembly line is thrown into high-gear, the Little Tramp goes haywire, screwing in nuts anywhere and everywhere.  I wonder what movie Chaplin would make about life in the Digital Age.

“With technology allowing nearly 24-hour media access as children and teens go about their daily lives, the amount of time young people spend with entertainment media has risen dramatically, especially among minority youth, according to a study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).  And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours”  (The Kaiser Family Foundation).
Even at M.I.T, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, students and teachers diverge widely on the value of laptops and multitasking.  Is it really possible to cram more activities into every hour, or are we just fooling ourselves?  What happens to the brain when it’s exposed to a constant stream of media stimulation?  The issues raised by living in a wired world are so compelling that Frontline devoted a multi-segment feature to exploring just that.

What we do know, is that in an age when information is more and more available, what will set the “better” minds apart will be their ability to think creatively and in divergent ways.  How can we foster those abilities?  One way is to make space for the “creative pause” – that moment when our conscious rumination fades away and our subconscious untangles the knot or provides that answer we so doggedly sought.   Some ways we make space are by doing an activity that engages the body but frees the mind – such as washing dishes, showering, walking.  All of these provide something for the conscious to focus its attentions on, while allowing the subconscious to roam free.  But with the digital world we live in, this is becoming harder and harder.  Technology eases our life, but also brings the world into our livingroom – or brain, making it harder to find the mental space for our subconscious to play.
In South Korea, dubbed “the most wired place on earth,” 90% of kids use the internet as a regular part of their life.  But at least 15% of them find that once they start playing, they can’t stop.  Entire days disappear, weekends find them up all night.  These kids experience ringing in their ears, eye strain, feelings of anxiety and stress if their parents try to curtail internet time.  The problem has gotten so serious that the government has established an “Internet Rescue School.”  The low-tech approach has kids take a “technology fast” without cell phones, laptops, internet or wifi of any kind.  Instead, they engage in some old-fashioned fun: climbing trees, ropes course, tug-of-war, walking.  The school also seeks to help students build stronger emotional connections with those around them by sharing feelings, talking, and active listening.
For Carl Honoré the issue wasn’t technology per se, but the pace of modern life.  His wake-up call appeared as he pondered buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories to read to his kids: “Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all.”  This led Honoré to write In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed.  Honoré’s feelings about work are supported by Judith Schor’s research, which finds that in the last two decades the average worker has added on an extra 164 hours – the equivalent of a full month – to their work year.

But what neither the Kaiser Family Foundation, nor South Korea, nor even M.I.T. addresses is, why are we so addicted to media, work, and speed.
Scott Belsky ponders just that.  He posits that we sacrifice our mental space because that void is frightening.  The inner chatter which has been stilled by the hubbub of the world around us suddenly gets louder, capturing our attention.  So we choose distraction over the pause that might become creative, because of fear of the unknown.  A second reason – and the underlying reason for the popularity of social media sites – is our need to feel like we belong, that we have friends.  Seeing how many “friends” we have on Facebook makes us feel liked.  When someone hits the “like” button, we feel validated.  Sadly, the connection between hours spent on social media sites and feelings of loneliness and alienation is a negative one. 
As digital media becomes more and more ubiquitous it will become increasingly harder to disconnect.  How can we protect ourselves? 
One way is by carving out sacred spaces and sacred times – creative pauses.  The Sabbath Manifesto, which just initiated a national day of unplugging (sundown to sundown March 4-5) offers ten principles for observing a weekly day of rest.  Among them: avoid technology, connect with loved ones, drink wine, eat bread.  It’s clear that people are hungering for meaning, connection, release, and a sense of control of our time.  Shabbat offers us all that: an Oasis in Time.