Answering the questions of non-Jewish guests poised expectantly around my Shabbos table has forced me to examine and re-examine its place, meaning and purpose. Having to explain it in fifteen minutes got me to finally understand it.
I had never done this before. Individual guests—certainly. But never an entire busload of Korean pastors, disgorged from their vehicle and heading up my front steps for a brief introduction to Shabbos.
They listened attentively as I dredged up phrases and images from a previous life as an NCSY advisor. (Their attention was more polite than substantive. Ten minutes into my monologue, the leader of the group tapped me on my shoulder, smiled, and whispered in my ear, “They don’t understand English!” before beginning to translate.)
Under pressure to score, I came up with a new approach. I described how millions of people experience the yearly grind of the workplace. Counting toward the next vacation makes all the months behind the desk livable. Getting on the plane to Hawaii, however, the pressures and concerns of the office stowaway in the passenger’s carry-on luggage. They follow him around, even while he’s kicking back in a lounge chair at the edge of the ocean. It takes far longer to take the office out of the employee than the employee out of the office. For too many, by the time that deep relaxation is achieved, when the mind has finally been purged of its heaviness, it is time to head back to the airport for the return flight.
Shabbos, I explained to the crowd, is a week in Hawaii without ever leaving home. Every week. The other six days, I told them, I do it all wrong. I rush my meals. I don’t take them with the family. Everything I do is pressurized, compacted and curtailed by the next item on an endless “to-do” list. I have time for no one, including myself. My wife has remarked to (non-Korean) guests trapped in their seats as I slowly and lovingly hold forth on the parashah—before Kiddush! —that the only time I ever relax or do things slowly is at the Shabbos table.
Remarkably, Shabbos hits right after the often most frenetic part of the week—the final preparations for the Day of Rest. But when it is time, it is time. The transformation is instant. Transportation to Maui provided by Hakadosh Baruch Hu Airlines. I become a mensch, with time for family, friends, new company and a good night’s sleep—in a bed, instead of slumped over the desk where I usually crash the rest of the week.
In a word, Shabbos’s most alluring local attraction is connection with Hashem.
Just becoming a mensch, though, wouldn’t do it for me. Without the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh, Shabbos would be like Kauai without a bathing suit. The Ohr HaChaim notes that the word “Shabbos” contains the word “shav,” or return. During the period of Creation, before Man appeared on the scene, Hashem’s presence was open, notorious, and manifest. Once Man arrived, God had to pull back, as it were. The open presence of Hashem would either overpower Man or, at the very least, remove his free will. Understating His presence allows for the freedom of choice that is the purpose of human life, but it also leaves us feeling distant and disconnected from our Creator. Shabbos changes all that. Each Shabbos Hashem “returns,” as it were, to a state of closeness and availability. All of the “do-nots” connected to Shabbos merely pave the way for the “dos.”
Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm complained that some people swallow the kedushah of Shabbos together with the gefilte fish. We try hard not to do that. The food and drink are literally fit for kings. My wife is a talented chef, and she doesn’t skimp. We try to make sure that we are honoring Hashem, not our stomachs. A great meal with good company but little spirituality at the table leaves me flat and dejected, as if I’ve wasted the Shabbos. The purpose of it all is to welcome Hashem into our home and into our hearts—and that only happens when the conversation stays on topic.
The book that we take along on our weekly vacation is the Good Book. Optimally, the table talk is about Torah. This might be topics from the parashah (it doesn’t happen unless I take the time to prepare them before), or issues facing Klal Yisrael (I don’t view such talk as time-wasting so much as an exercise in passionately asserting one’s connection to and love of the Jewish people). There is gourmet food, finery on the table, and elegant dress and demeanor—but they are all adjuncts to the primary experience. The upshot of it all is seizing the availability of the Shechinah that returns to us once a week.
People who get into their cars and head for a destination with no advance planning can have a good time, but seldom a great vacation. To us, a great Shabbos means reading the travel guides in advance, selecting the appropriate travel companions and, most importantly, insisting on taking in the great beauty of the destination. In a word, Shabbos’s most alluring local attraction is connection with Hashem.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He is also a member of the Jewish Action editorial board, and a founding editor of Cross-Currents.com.
This article is excerpted from the larger article “Shabbos: Judaism’s Priceless Treasure” which appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Jewish Action.