A number of years ago, I started working at Camp Ramah in New England. I was a Division Head/Rosh Edah for a group of teens heading into 10th grade. I was new to the camp and did not previously know any of my campers. After a few days, I noticed that I was fairly upset about how the summer was going. I called a meeting one morning so I could address my campers directly. I told them that I was getting dozens of calls per day from specialists around the camp telling me that ‘this camper’ or ‘that camper’ was missing. I was running around all day looking for them and constantly being told that my group was difficult and a bunch of other negative words. I told my campers that it made me sad to be hearing these things about them. I told them that I serve as their parent for the summer and it was difficult to hear only negative things about the kids in my care. I told them they had to change and get with the program. And that I cared deeply about them and only wanted good things for them and to hear good things about them. After the meeting, I heard from a number of the teens. They were confused. I didn’t even know them. Why did I care so much?
This Shabbat is called the Great Shabbat/Shabbat HaGadol. The question is, why is it called that? The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, Poland 1847-1905) teaches (Shabbat HaGadol 5637) that there are two different approaches to Shabbat. One is to see the week as something that we just need to get through. I have work or school or tasks that I am obligated to do. And on Shabbat, I get to take a break from that. So, if I do everything I need to do, and I do not succumb to vices, then, I merrit a little Shabbat/Shabbat HaKatan. But there is another approach. If I live my week with the awareness that there is nothing that inherently enslaves me other than my acceptance of the yoke of heaven; that I live in service of God and Torah and that I am supposed to do good in the world, then something else happens on Shabbat. I become one who serves completely out of love, just like Jacob as he served all those years out of love for Rachel. It wasn’t work for him. It was a pure expression of love. That is what Shabbat HaGadol should feel like.
Essentially, this is a matter of orientation. One orientation motivates through negativity and fear. I have to do my work and not slip up in my life, and then I earn the little Shabbat. And the other orientation is about positivity and love. The Sfas Emes points out that these two orientations are found in our calendar. On Shabbat Teshuva, between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we are thinking about our actions. Did I do enough good? Do I deserve to be in the Book of Life? And here on Shabbat HaGadol, we are moved purely out of love. God saved us and brought us out of slavery for no reason. Just because God loves us.
My campers from my first summer were confused about my approach and style. “We know we are difficult,” some would say. Others would add “you barely know us.” “Why do you care about us?” I told them that they did not have to earn my care and love. They get that automatically. This time of year is about unconditional love. We do not have to earn freedom. We get is just because of who we are. God loves us just because of who we are. As we prepare for Pesah and the Seders, let us try and live with this orientation. We don’t need to feel that we have earned God’s love. It is ours no matter what. May this love be felt in all of your homes and in all the homes of Israel.
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.