Shabbat Chukkat: “Welcoming Shabbat – Welcoming Life” (7/15/16 Sermon)

So I am going to make a public admission.  It’s about a TV show that I have watched online.  That I love.  It is called, “Married at First Sight.”  Like most of my favorite things to watch, it is a reality show.  And it’s just exactly what it sounds like:  People agree to allow a small panel of therapists and a chaplain to play match maker and pair them up with a stranger who they first meet at the altar on the day of their wedding.

At the reception they need to find out the basic facts of their new spouse’s life and then proceed through a honeymoon and six weeks of marriage.  At the end of that time they make a decision on whether or not they want to stay married, or get a divorce.

No spoilers here because – after Shabbat – you might want to check it out: but you may be surprised to learn that despite the crazy circumstances of this, some of them actually succeed.  That’s all I’m saying.

I love this show because it is a fascinating exploration of human nature.

When the wedding morning arrives, each of them has some form of anxiety attack as it really hits them what they’ve done.

But then they have to come to terms with their reality.  Very quickly, they have to dig deep to examine how they might possibly make this work out – what they need to change and to give – what this unknown person they’ve just married should be expected to change and give.  Each of them has to open their heart and mind and soul to self-reflection and to another person if there is any chance of a successful marriage resulting.

What I have seen on the three seasons of this show – Yes, three seasons – is that there are two kinds of participants in this social experiment, as it is called:  Those who remain closed and distrustful and those who choose to really push themselves to remain open, even through discomfort and awkwardness.

And those who are all about self-protection come to the end of the six weeks returning to their former lives angry and completely unchanged.

And the ones who work to remain open finish very differently.  They may or may not end up with a successful marriage but they talk about themselves differently – they have learned and grown and feel grateful for the challenging experience they’ve just been through.

Now I wouldn’t advocate anyone going on this arguably silly reality show, but I do think there are interesting parallels here between this idea of Marriage at First Sight and a ritual we do each week as Jewish communities begin their Shabbat observance.

First a story from our early rabbis:

According to the Midrash, God paired up all the days of the week: Sunday had Monday, Tuesday had Wednesday, Thursday had Friday. Only Shabbat was left alone.

The Sabbath came before the Holy One and said: “Sovereign of the Universe. All the other days have a mate; am I to be without one?”
The Holy One said to Shabbat: “The People of Israel shall be your mate.” As it says in the Torah, “Remember the Sabbath day L’Kawd-sho.”  Kawdsho – Kadosh – means to make something holy.  But Kadosh is also the Hebrew root of the word Kiddushin which means a marriage.

The introductory part of a Jewish service is made up of songs such as we sang tonight:  Hinei Mah Tov, L’cha Dodi, Shalom Aleichem.  This part of our service is called “Kabbalat Shabbat” – welcoming or receiving Shabbat.  And as part of that welcoming we accept Shabbat and its holiness as our bride.  At the end of L’cha dodi, it is traditional custom to rise, face the door, and welcome our marriage partner – our beloved Shabbat, a day that connects us to Godliness within and in the greater world.

And each week, we act out this marriage at first sight: a marriage in which God has served as matchmaker.  And we agree to allow this holiness into our lives and our homes and our hearts.  To approach this day as a new, unknown partner – to open ourselves to appreciating its gifts so that we may grow and be our best selves.

This act is not just about welcoming Shabbat – it is an exercise in welcoming life.  Kabbalat Shabbat – Welcoming Shabbat – models for us how we are to strive to approach life and the world.

How easy it is to approach the world with distrust – with emotional and spiritual armor on.  It may seem the rational way to go.  On the world stage, we hear the daily news and start to feel like no one, anywhere, can be trusted – that no place is safe. On a personal level, we all know that confidences can be broken, that friendships can be betrayed, that great ideas and projects can be rejected or lead to failure.  So why not shut down – close ourselves off?  Isn’t that the logical thing to do?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukkat, we read of the most confounding mitzvah among God’s directives: The Red Calf.  Tradition says that even King Solomon was said to have scratched his head over the rationale for this teaching.  Luckily, it’s one of the many mitzvot that only apply when the Jerusalem Temple is standing so we haven’t had to worry about it for quite a long time.  It involves taking a completely perfect and unblemished red heifer, slaughtering it in a specific location, taking its ashes, mixing it with water from a specific spring, and using the mixture to take people out of a state of ritual impurity.  We don’t know for sure if this was ever actually carried out and there’s no rationale given so the whole thing is shrouded in mystery.  But the Torah portion starts out by introducing this mitzvah and calling it a “Chok.”  This led our early rabbis to call any mitzvah – any Jewish religious responsibility – that doesn’t make real apparent sense a “Chok.”  We might think about mitzvahs like not to eat pork or lighting Shabbat candles. What’s the point of doing these things?

Other mitzvahs seem much more obvious:  “Don’t murder.” “Don’t steal.” “Help the widow and the orphan.”  It’s clear why a civilized society would need to include these type of rules.  Any community could figure out the importance of requiring people to treat each other with respect.  It makes clear, rational sense.

So our Jewish mitzvahs are made up of those that make obvious rational sense – we call those Mishpatim – and those that might leave us scratching our heads – called Chukim.

But interestingly, over the centuries of Jewish tradition, while we have remained dedicated to our central responsibility to live ethically, it is often the Chukim that have brought identity and meaning to people.  Maybe our Jewish food guidelines don’t make rational sense, but it is often special Jewish foods and the memory of eating these foods that bring the most cherished memories and comfort.  Maybe it doesn’t make rational sense to light two candles as the start of Shabbat but these flames have become so meaningful to so many Jews as they represent hope and faith and may bring up positive memories of Shabbat dinners and services from our past.

A Chok – a mitzvah that doesn’t seem rational – can sometimes bring us the greatest amount of joy and grounding and identity.

I believe that our Kabbalat Shabbat – our opening our hearts to our Shabbat bride and our Shabbat day of holiness – is a symbol to us of a very important ‘Chok.”

It is not rational to open ourselves up – to share, to love, to reach out or give to someone we don’t know, to try out new ideas, to take new life paths.  All these things are terribly risky.  On one level, staying emotionally protected is the logical way to prevent being hurt.

But safety is not the primary purpose of a good life.  Sometimes pushing ourselves through our natural awkwardness or fear – breaking down our interior boundaries to open ourselves to new experiences, new people, new ways of thinking – is a non-rational requirement for living our fullest selves.

Each Shabbat evening we act out, as if for the first time, the receiving of a partner that God has brought into our lives.  We welcome Shabbat and also more than Shabbat – We welcome the idea that if we fully open ourselves to the universe’s gifts, they will bring us growth and joy and meaning.  We may not know exactly how, but that is part of the journey.

It can feel scary to open our hearts, to connect with unfamiliar people, to try something new, to take a leap into a life change.  It is easy to ask ourselves: “Why push myself in this way? Why stick my neck out? Why take a potentially dangerous life road less travelled?” But reacting fearfully to these questions keep us from being our best selves.

Let us feel inspired by our tradition’s call to welcome life – opening ourselves to the world – the highs and lows, the safe and the uncertain, the comfortable and the unfamiliar.  We are called to do, even what doesn’t seem most rational, in order to stretch ourselves, improve our character, embrace life fully.

May this Shabbat and the week ahead provide opportunities for you to take the risk of opening your heart, your mind, your soul to the world.