As a young child growing up in the frozen tundra of Winnipeg, I knew that there was one thing that I needed to do to fit in with my Canadian friends. In order to be a normal Canadian, I had to play hockey. However, playing hockey was not a simple activity for me to sign up for. First of all, the games were on Shabbat. And furthermore, games were on Shabbat morning during services. My father was a congregational rabbi (still is), and I was expected to come to shul and keep Shabbat with my family and my community. So, for my first five years living in Canada, I could not play hockey and I had to find other ways to fit in.
But one, year, when I was in grade two (as they say in Canada), the league moved the games for my age groups to Saturday afternoon. This was finally my chance. My father agreed to let me play that year. He would hurry through kiddush after services and we would walk together carrying my hockey bag (he did most of the carrying if I am being honest) all the way from shul to my house and then to the rink. And then, I would play hockey with my friends.
Week after week, my father and I would do this, and while I was having fun, my father was a little sad. He saw that after the games, all of my friends went out to eat together or bought food at the rink, which we did not do on Shabbat. One week, he felt bad and finally, after the game, he turned to me and asked, “Do you want some hot chocolate?” I turned back to him and I said, “But Abba, it's Shabbos?!?!” Of course, as I would later find out, my father had intended to walk home and make Shabbat friendly instant hot chocolate with me, but he often tells this story as a sign that we were really on the same page with how important Shabbat was to us both. We could turn to each other and embrace our relationship and rest together from our weekly actions during the Holy Sabbath.
In this week’s Parsha, Balak, Bil’am is told to curse the Israelite nation. But after seeing our beautiful camp, he instead proclaims. “How goodly are your tents Jacob, your encampments, Israel/מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.” On the surface, this is a fairly odd blessing. It is a compliment to our structural planning, but is there something more going on here?
The Sfas Emes teaches that the blessing is really about two different things. It is about our work during the week, and our rest on Shabbat. Our tents are pegged into the ground. We are firmly planted in this world and in the material world during the week. However, as we learn in Pirkei Avot, if you eat of this world, you merit a place in the world to come. The encampments are the world to come. Shabbat, as we traditionally say, is a taste of the world to come. It is where we are separated from this world and it is a unique day for us. The Sfas Emes explains that Shabbat is the time when the following verse is fulfilled, “And I will turn to you/וּפָנִיתִי אֲלֵיכֶם”. He explains that God rests from all work and actually turns to face us and relate to us. And on Shabbat, it is our responsibility and joy, in return, to turn and face God.
Shabbat gives us the opportunities to put our weekly selves and work away and turn towards those we love to be in a relationship with them with no distractions. May we all have a peaceful Shabbat where we turn and see God and many loved ones looking back at us.
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.