Strangely, my dvar begins and ends with two parables that involve crying men.
Here’s the first: There’s a story that the Chafetz Chaim was visiting a Jewish village. There he was greeted by the local dignitaries, who proudly told him that they actually had in their town a Society for the Keeping of the Sabbath. We are told that when the Chafetz Chaim heard this news, he burst into tears. “If you need a Society to keep the Sabbath,” he told them, “I have a feeling that you probably don’t do so.”
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, we read of the building of the Temple, of the creation of the golden calf, and of the tablets that Moshe destroys in anger. In the midst of all this drama, we also see God’s insistence of the importance of Shabbat. “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” And Moshe is instructed that even the building of the Holy Temple must cease on Shabbat.
Years ago, I attended a lecture that Rabbi Harold Kushner gave about the three world-changing contributions that the Jews gave to humanity. I don’t know what you might think they are, and we could certainly debate some of these points. But, for Kushner, they are: DIETARY RULES (kashrut); MONOTHEISM; and Shabbat, the holiness of a day of rest. A day that separates the mundane work week from the spiritual day that defines us as a people. There is something revolutionary about demanding a day of rest. However hard life must have been, however much the demands of the world call out to us, we are enjoined to observe/to keep the Sabbath. As God tells Moshe, it “shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel.”
And here’s the second story: The rabbis tell the story of a man who was disenchanted with Judaism. He had discovered another religion, a religion that appealed to him so much that he decided to leave Judaism and convert out. His rabbi came to see him, and pleaded with him not to abandon the religion of his family, of his birth. The rabbi told him about the joys of the Torah, about being God’s “chosen people.” The rabbi reminded him of the excitement of his bar mitzvah a few years before. But nothing moved the young man. The rabbi even told him that he would go to hell if he adopted another religion. Again, the young man was not persuaded. After hours of this, the rabbi left, giving up in disgust.
A day or so later, a friend visited the man. They were reminiscing about their childhoods, and they began to remember their experiences of Shabbat. They talked about the food they loved, the prayers they chanted, the aromas that they savored as they entered their homes. They reminisced about the songs that they would sing on Shabbat, and they began to sing some of those prayers. The young man began to cry. His memories of Shabbat made him remember that he was a Jew, and how vital that was to his sense of his own identity. He did not abandon his Judaism.
I don’t know if that story is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. I am sure that we all have different Shabbat rituals, and I would guess that we can’t always commit as fully as we might like to Shabbat observance. Some people, for example, have no choice but to work on Shabbat. And I have NO DOUBT that we all reject the mandate that God gives Moshe in Ki Tissa that we should be killed if we violate Shabbat.
Even with all that, though, I do think that we all know—or, better, we all FEEL—the intense significance of this weekly day of rest. Of Shabbat. This was indeed a gift that the Jews gave to civilization, and it is a gift—a blessing—that we give to ourselves.