As a young child, even though I grew up in a traditional household--my father is a Rabbi--I was allowed to watch television and play video games. One day, when I was about ten years old, I was playing Nintendo when my dad barged into the living room and told me that I needed to turn off the game console. I was furious. “Why?!?!” I protested, “I have always played!” My dad responded, “Can you honestly tell me that you are not creating when you play these games?” Traditionally we refrain from creative work/malacha on Shabbat. In my heart, I knew he was right. But I was a kid, so I said, “No, it’s not creating.” Well, I have never been a very good liar, and my dad could see right through me. From that day on, I accepted a new standard in my Shabbos life.
There is a midrash from Breishit Rabbah, that says that after Kayin kills Hevel, he was punished to wander the land forever--na v’nad tihiye ba’artez/נָע וָנָד, תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ. However, he then asked forgiveness from God. He made a compromise with God and half of the punishment was taken away--he ended up only living in eretz nod/וַיֵּצֵא קַיִן, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה; וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֶרֶץ-נוֹד (the “nod” stuck, but the “na” was taken away). He left his backroom meeting with God with a big smile on his face. Adam sees Kayin leaving this meeting and asks him, what are you so happy about? Kayin replies, I did teshuva and made a deal--a plea bargain of sorts. Immediately, Adam hits himself in the face. He says, “such is the power of teshuva?!? I had no idea!!” He then stood up and recited the Psalm for Shabbat, mizmor shir l’yom hashabbat. The questions are, why does this teshuva work? Why does Adam say this Psalm as his form of teshuva? How is this his teshuva?
In this week’s Haftarah, in the book of Isaiah, we read “Happy is...the one who keeps Sabbath from profaning it/אשרי האיש...השומר שבת מחללו.” The Talmud teaches us that we should not read “from profaning it/me’halelo/מחללו,” rather it should be read “he is forgiven/mahul lo/מחול לו.” When we guard Shabbat as a staple of our lives, when we take Shabbat seriously, then we become whole and return to our best selves.
Shabbos is more than coming to shul and praying and seeing friends and family--though those are all great and important things. That is what I learned on that day many years ago. In our mystical tradition, Shabbos is called Testimony. The Sfas Emes teaches that our testimony is not necessarily only with our words, that we ourselves are the testimony. We testify with our actions and our lives. And maybe that is what Adam realized. He was not merely saying the Psalm for Shabbat, he was getting into Shabbat mode, which is a mode where we act as our best selves, and through our actions, we testify to all those that see us that we love Torah and our Creator.
On this Shabbat Teshuva, I want to challenge us all to take it up a notch and find a way in our own lives to take Shabbat seriously on another level. Even if it is not sustainable forever, these ten days of teshuva/aseret yemei teshuva are a time to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. If we can do that, then we would have successfully returned to our best selves, ready for Yom Kippur.
May this Shabbos be one of love and sweetness, returning us to the lives we want to live with our God and with our loved ones.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.