My friends, today we celebrate the holiest time of our Jewish year. This sacred day is the foundation of our calendar. It is the wellspring of our spirituality and the lifeblood of the Jewish people; without it, we could not endure.
But that is not why most of you are here this morning.
You have come for Yom Kippur.
And Yom Kippur is an important event, a momentous gathering for our community. But despite the crowd it draws, here in Boise and across the Jewish world, Yom Kippur is not our tradition’s most essential festival. The holiest celebration of the Jewish year returns weekly, starting at sunset every Friday evening.
The most sacred day of the Jewish year is Shabbat.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’re here for Yom Kippur. When we take it seriously, the Day of Atonement offers genuine reconciliation, an opportunity to forgive others and ourselves. But Shabbat is the only holiday to make the Ten Commandments and its existence precedes the Jewish people. Yom Kippur is a turning point in Jewish time; Shabbat is built into the very creation of the world, a gift to every living thing. So this morning, on Yom Kippur—and throughout the year to come—I am asking us to work together to restore Shabbat to its proper place as the greatest of our people’s treasures.
Over the course of these Days of Awe, I’ve spoken a great deal about teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, our Jewish obligations to turn, pray, and liberate. As our liturgy for this season teaches, these are the holy deeds with the power to mitigate harsh fate, to transform ourselves and our world.
But turning, prayer, and liberation are as exhausting as they are essential. In order to do this sacred labor well, we frail human beings also need to rest—especially in these current trying times.
A few days ago, I received an email from my friend, Rev. Vincent Lachina, the longtime chaplain for the northwest regional affiliates of Planned Parenthood. I met him years ago when I was president of our local chapter. In his home city of Seattle and around the Pacific Northwest, Vincent is an exceptional social justice activist. He’s an ordained Southern Baptist minister who turns, prays, and liberates with extraordinary passion and integrity. With that in mind, consider what he wrote me and other clergy and lay leader friends during this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
I had a difficult time writing this message.
Not because I don’t look forward to checking in with you every couple of weeks, and not because sharing some words of encouragement isn’t something that matters deeply to me—it’s because I haven’t had those words. This week I think I finally felt the weight of the past few months; all the protests and pushing back, of opposing travel bans and healthcare bills and racists’ marches; of the family arguments and social media battles and church conflicts.
I think my body and my heart finally said, “Enough” and I think I’m not alone. Rather than holding off until I can share a buoyant, inspiring, “rah-rah” message with you, I wanted to share this one with you:
It’s okay to be exhausted.
It’s alright to be weary and frustrated and burned out; to admit when you’re tired of it all and you need to step away and pause and breathe.
Today, maybe give yourself the gift of logging out, of shutting down, of not fighting; of taking some time to paint, take your dog to the park, or lay in the grass and watch the clouds. It isn’t irresponsible—it’s caring for your soul and yourself and those around you, so that you’ll be here for a long time.
Sometimes you need to change the world—and sometimes you need to take a nap. I’m going to do the latter.
Shabbat is our indispensable Jewish injunction to take a nap. And that mandate is more crucial now than ever, because turning, praying, and liberating are wearying work—and because our seemingly endless slate of far more mundane affairs is doubly draining. We need Shabbat because we are all way too busy with trivialities, because our sense of time and priorities is badly warped by our culture of technology run amuck.
North Carolina pastor John Pavlovitz eloquently explains our predicament:
Permission to stop.
But permission to stop is inadequate to the task.
I have more than my share of those Shabbat afternoons when I return from shul, collapsing from fatigue. I shuffle through the door, take off my work clothes, slip into bed, pull out a good book or, better yet, close my eyes to nap.
And then my phone—that hand-held machine more powerful than the vast banks of computers that during my childhood guided the Apollo spaceships to the moon and back—that marvelous, monstrous smartphone pings.
And I, with the addict’s unmistakable, unconscious compulsion, reach out to check for that incoming email or text or Facebook “like” that brings the constantly craved dopamine jolt.
That’s why we require more than permission to stop. What we need is an obligation to cease and desist.
Six days you should labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Shabbat.
More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
Shabbat is a remarkable gift. But we are so reluctant to accept it, God had to make it a command.
We need to come home and turn our screens off.
All week long, we labor to heal what’s broken in the world. This is critical work. But alas for us if we do not take a day to marvel at the world as it is, to revel and rejoice in its beauty that endures despite everything.
The poet Marcia Falk writes:
Three generations back
my family had only
to light a candle
and the world parted.
Today, Friday afternoon,
I disconnect clocks and phones.
When night fills my house
I begin saving
Fortunately, this command, this mitzvah of Shabbat is not an all-or-nothing proposal. I am not likely to ever become Shomer Shabbos in an Orthodox sense and, I suspect, neither are most of you. Yet we can commit, together as a community, to recovering the blessings of this weekly festival, step by step. Steadily, over time, we can restore Shabbat to its central place as a day of rest and renewal, wholeness and holiness. Let us find ways to slow down, to turn off. Leave the car in the garage and ride your bike. Instead of shopping, take a walk. Your soul will rejoice in occasionally saying “no” to consumerism. Set the calendar, the planner, the endless list of errands aside. And take the time with family or friends, because Shabbat is better when we celebrate together.
Let’s start with Friday night Shabbat dinners.
Our Sages teach that every Shabbat table is an altar, no less hallowed than the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. At their best, our Shabbos tables are places of learning, healing, and joyous community. Shabbat dinner is a time for friends and family and welcome guests to share stories, bridge divides, laugh and sing, debate and delight. The dinner need not be elegant and if there are kids, they don’t have to be perfectly behaved. But we have to reach out and invite one another to join our celebrations. Because when we come together for Shabbat, we can become what a synagogue is at its best: a large, extended family, forged over candles, Kiddush, and conversation. When we open our homes and our hearts to each other, Shabbat conjures a miracle, transforming the isolation and loneliness of contemporary America into kinship and community.
Later this fall and early winter, we will be launching a synagogue-wide Shabbat dinner initiative. The ultimate goal is straightforward: every Friday night, every CABI individual and family that wishes to enjoy a Shabbat dinner will have a place to go. At the start, once a month we will continue to have Shabbat dinner at the synagogue. Once a month we will continue to have Early Bird Shabbat with an early Oneg. And once a month, we will help coordinate hosts and guests so that everyone has a place to go for dinner after early Kabbalat Shabbat. To facilitate this, we will shift our usual 7:30 service to 5:45. If you show up at shul alone, you can leave with friends, old or new. Or you can skip shul and go straight to dinner at someone’s home, where young and old will celebrate across the generations, our senior members and our families with young children, together. Even before we get started, in coming weeks, we’ll begin to lay the infrastructure we need to support and sustain this effort. Haya Kinberg and I will be leading Wednesday night adult learning programs on how to enrich home-based Shabbat observances. The children in our Jewish Journeys program will bring home food from their cooking adventures for Shabbat dinner, and ideas and activities for Shabbat discussion. Thanks to a generous grant from the Groves Foundation, CABI will recruit and hire a Shabbat Coordinator to match and work with hosts and guests. We’ll line up and train a company of Shabbat “Angels” to be present at dinners across the community and mentor attendees through the rituals and blessings that enrich the occasion. Someone could come to your home to help you say the blessings, or sing a song. We’ll put out Torah Table Talk guides for each week’s discussion, and easy recipes and workshops for making challah and other traditional foods. And we’ll provide funds to assist those for whom hosting a Shabbat dinner might otherwise constitute a financial hardship. Stay tuned for more, coming soon—and if you want to volunteer, please call or email me after the fall holy days have passed!
I know it’s a little tough to ponder dinner on Yom Kippur, as morning turns to afternoon and our stomachs start to rumble.
But in a matter of hours, this Day of Atonement will be over, not to return until the passing of another year.
Meanwhile, Shabbat will be back next week. And the week after that. And so on, without fail, for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond—blessing and sustaining the Jewish people.
So as these Days of Awe draw toward an end, let us prepare to do our holy work in the world. The task is formidable and the time is urgent.
Let us turn.
Let us pray.
And let us liberate.
But at the end of each rigorous week of turning, praying, and liberating, let us not forget to rest, to renew ourselves, our community and the Jewish people.
In that spirit, I end with words by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, set to music by one of the great contemporary Jewish songwriters, Dan Nichols:
A thought has blown the market place away
There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees.
Shabbat has arrived in the world
Scattering a song in the silence of the night.
And Eternity utters a day. . .