God Knows We Need a Break (Rosh HaShanah Morning 5784, September 16, 2023)
God Knows We Need a Break
Rosh HaShanah Morning 5784
September 16, 2023
Rabbi David S. Widzer
On January 12, 2007, a Washington Post writer named Gene Weingarten launched an interesting experiment. He convinced a world-class violinist, Joshua Bell, to stand incognito at an entrance to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station and play his Stradivarius violin and see what would happen. Bell had just played to sold-out audiences at Symphony Hall in Boston. A few months later, he would be awarded the Avery Fisher prize, the top honor for an American classical musician. But on that day in January, he played 6 tremendously intricate, beautiful pieces by Bach, Schubert, and others, for 43 minutes standing in the Metro station. If you watch the video of the experiment, you’ll see 1,097 people pass in that time. Only 7 stop, even briefly, to listen to the music. Only 27 people toss some money into Bell’s open violin case, totaling a little more than $32. One of the premier violinists of our era, playing timeless musical masterpieces by famous composers, on an exquisite instrument, and barely 3% of the people passing by acknowledged it in any way. They were too busy on their commute, too busy getting from here to there, too busy thinking about their work, their responsibilities, their hectic schedules, their lives, to stop, to take a moment, to notice something beyond themselves, to take in breathtaking beauty right in front of them. No time to pause, not even for that.
We’d like to think that wouldn’t be us. We want to say, “I would stop, I would notice, I would pause.” But would we? Do we? Granted, some of us might not be commuting as much anymore or rushing in and out of Metro stations. But are we not still consumed by the hectic pace of what goes on around us? There are Zoom calls, Teams meetings, video conferences, carpools and errands, appointments with doctors, mechanics, or attorneys, trips to the grocery store, the gas station, the mall. How much of the time do we find ourselves wrapped up in the busy-ness of life? How many of us make “to-do” lists and judge the success of our day based on what we did or did not accomplish? In this pseudo-post-pandemic world, where the line between home and work is blurry or lost, how many of us feel like there is always more we should be doing for our jobs? How many of our kids or grandkids have schedules that wear them out – sports meets, dance classes, play rehearsals, musical instrument practices, enrichment activities, studying and homework, and after-school jobs, to say nothing of time spent with friends? And our adult schedules are just as hectic. We all rush from activity to activity, from project to project, so busy being here doing this, but also needing to be there doing that. God knows, we need a break. A pause. A chance to slow down, even for just a moment or two, to listen to some world-class music. We need some time to relax and recharge and rejuvenate. Otherwise, we just keep running and running and running.
Hmmm. God knows … we need a break.
God knows something about busy weeks. That’s the Torah portion we just read this morning. You think you’re busy. Try creating light and dark, night and day, earth and seas, sun and moon, vegetation and creatures of sky and sea and land. To come up with aardvarks, asparagus, and asteroids all in one week! (And that’s just the A’s.) We are told that God “ceased on the seventh day from all the work that had been done.” And “on the seventh day, God rested and was refreshed.” God was pretty busy. And then God took a break – Shabbat.
Shabbat is an answer to the busy-ness of our time, the hecticness that keeps us from noticing, let alone enjoying, a world-class musician in an unexpected place. Shabbat is one way to pause, to stop, to breathe amidst the hectic pace of our lives. There are other ways, I know, and some of us are good at being intentional about taking the break we need. Some of us are not. Shabbat is a way to do this in a particular Jewish framework.
In teaching about Shabbat, I sometimes will have students take 3 minutes to write on one side of a page everything that they have done that week. I ask them to fill the page with as much as they’d like: details, times, appointments, everything they’ve done. What would you write down from this past week? Could you fit it on one side of one page? When the students are finished with that part of the exercise, on the other side of the page, I ask them to draw a picture of their ideal day off. What would they like to do when they don’t have to do everything on the other side of the page? What would you draw? Shabbat is the recognition that, though we live most of our lives on the one side of the paper, once a week, we take time on the other side of the page. Resting, stopping, doing something else is Shabbat. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg tells the story:
“A great pianist who was once asked by an ardent admirer, ‘How do you handle the notes as well as you do?’ The musician answered, ‘The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes – ah! that is where the art resides.’ In great living, as in great music, the art may be in the pauses. Surely one of the enduring contributions which Judaism made to the art of living was the Shabbat, ‘the pause between the notes.’ And it is to the Shabbat that we must look if we are to restore to our lives the sense of serenity and sanctity which Shabbat offers in such joyous abundance.”
Shabbat can be our time to relax and recharge, to cease the “doing” of our everyday lives, if only for a moment or a day. It is the pause between the notes. It just might be the break we need, and God knows we need a break.
On this Rosh HaShanah morning, my challenge to you is to find a way this year to take a break, and to make your break Shabbat, your time to rest and be refreshed. I’ll tell you now, Shabbat is not an all-or-nothing proposition, a one-size-fits-all answer. Finding a way to “do” Shabbat will look different for each person and could look different each week. There are many different ways to do Shabbat. As a community this year, we will explore and experience and study and learn about Shabbat. My hope, my challenge, my goal, is that each of us will find something meaningful in Shabbat in the year to come. To do this, we need to understand what Shabbat has meant over the millennia and imagine how we might do Shabbat in our world today.
In the Torah, the focal point of Shabbat is the cessation from work. In Genesis, we’re told that God stopped working on the 7th day, so on that day, we should do no work. Over the years, the definition of “work” has changed and grown. By the 2nd century CE, our rabbinic sages ruled that work included agricultural labor, like sowing, ploughing, reaping, and grinding; making items from wool or animal skin, like shearing, weaving, skinning, or tanning; and functions like writing or erasing, or lighting or putting out a fire. In total, the ancient rabbis found 39 different categories of work.
In a glorious misunderstanding, I taught this once to a Confirmation class, only to have a student raise her hand earnestly and express surprise that tanning was on the list. “I don’t think tanning is a lot of work, Rabbi Widzer,” she exclaimed. “All you have to do is lie there.” When I explained that it wasn’t that type of tanning, but rather what one did to animal hides, she understood tanning’s inclusion on the list.
Over the years, each of these 39 categories of work has been extrapolated to include modern analogous behavior. But Shabbat, as it developed, is more than stopping from work or the rules of what one can or cannot do. Shabbat has come to encompass three main themes: kedushah, meaning “sanctity” or “holiness;” menuchah, meaning “rest” or “relaxation;” and oneg, meaning “little cookies artfully arranged on trays” – no, just kidding, oneg means “joy.” In Reform Judaism, these terms can be expansive and inclusive of a wide variety of Shabbat expressions.
Kedushah, sanctity, might be the awe at a Shabbat sunset, or the glimpse of the Torah scrolls when the Ark is opened, or when the candles you’ve lit illumine the faces of people you love. It might be the quiet moment when no one else is awake and you sense the calm of the universe. It could be when the congregational singing of Shalom Rav lifts you or when you see in the face of a parent such pride as their child reads Torah.
Menucha, rest, is “not doing” what you usually do all week long and relaxing instead. It could be the Shabbat afternoon nap you so richly deserve after all that rushing around during the week. It might be bingeing the new Netflix series on the couch or taking a break from homework, housework, or any kind of work. And menucha is not just for people: the non-profit that sponsors a Global Day of Unplugging once produced and sold mini-sleeping bags for your cell phone, so that it (and you) can rest on Shabbat.
Oneg means “joy,” as in finding something joyful and celebratory, something that brings you happiness, on Shabbat. It can be a phone call with an old friend, a bike ride, or playing with your pet. It might be reading a book or going to the movies. Or it could be eating good food, even including those little cookies and pastries in the Social Hall.
Because of this focus on kedushah, menucha, and oneg, because of the importance of stopping our work, because Shabbat is meant to be a pause and a break from the norm, Shabbat should be different than any other day. It should feel different. Experiencing Shabbat means doing something, somehow, that makes us realize that Shabbat is not like other days.
Let me share with you some of my Shabbat practice. On most days of the week, I eat a turkey sandwich for lunch. On Shabbat, I eat anything BUT a turkey sandwich. (Many weeks, it’s toaster oven pizza bagels!) On most days of the week, I drive to TBS from my home, turning right out of my neighborhood. On Shabbat, I drive a different way, turning left out of my neighborhood, so that I remember that, though I’m going to the same place as always, Shabbat is different. On most days of the week, as I drive, I listen to whatever station is on the radio. On Shabbat in my car, I listen to Jewish music, including Jewish Rock Radio (yes, that’s a real thing, founded by our friend Rick Recht). I’ll pay bills on any day, except Shabbat. When I used to wear a watch every day, I had a special one that I only wore on Shabbat – it had Hebrew letters instead of numbers – to help me remember that, on Shabbat, time is different. When I was just starting out as a rabbi, one of the hit shows on TV was “The West Wing.” It aired on Wednesday nights, which was the night I taught Confirmation. So I would videotape the episode (if you don’t know what a videotape is, ask someone older than you after the service.) And on Shabbat afternoon, once I got home from Temple, Karen and I, pre-children, would sit and watch that week’s episode, eating pizza bagels for lunch.
There are so many ways to celebrate Shabbat. My Shabbat philosophy isn’t constrained by the 39 rabbinic categories of work. Instead, I find ways to incorporate a little bit of kedushah, menuchah, and oneg into the day, and know that Shabbat is different from any other day.
So here is YOUR Shabbat challenge. Over the coming year, what will YOU do that makes Shabbat different? What will YOU do to rest, recharge, and refresh each week?
It doesn’t have to be the same thing every week. And it doesn’t have to mean a complete overhaul of your lifestyle or your family’s. Shabbat is not an “all or nothing” proposition. Start by picking something you’d like to do. You can add the table blessings to your Friday night dinner. Or plan on attending services Friday night or Minyan Makers on Saturday morning. Or carve out some family time on Saturday afternoon. Or treat yourself to a pedicure. Make a challah. Learn about the weekly Torah portion. Play board games. Go bowling. Garden. Do something with the intention of it being for kedushah, menuchah, or oneg, and do it one or two weeks in a row. See if it fits for your sense of Shabbat. Then try something else in addition to, or instead of. It’s not “all or nothing;” it’s how to make Shabbat your time, your pause, your break. (Because God knows we all need one!)
This focus on Shabbat will permeate our TBS year. The L.I.F.E. Committee (that’s “Learning is For Everyone”) has selected as its theme, “Stop the World – I Want to Shabbat!” That means that our adult education offerings this year will include everything from how to bake Challah to how to read Hebrew to how to make Shabbat fun and engaging in your home, from a book group “Lunch and Learn” on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath to tasting sessions on Shabbat meals from around the world. In March, our Scholars-in-Residence weekend will feature Cantor Ellen and Rabbi Billy Dreskin, two top-tier educators, musicians, and mentches, who will help us explore a multitude of ways to experience and enjoy Shabbat. Our Ritual Committee has been brainstorming engaging Shabbat experiences, which might include a night of whole congregational Shabbat dinners hosted in people’s homes, Saturday morning Shabbat play-dates for the Tot Shabbat crowd, musical Shabbat services, meditation or yoga Shabbats, and a variety of other experiences. We want everyone this year to learn more about Shabbat and to find meaningful ways to bring it into your lives.
The truth is, we all need Shabbat. We all deserve Shabbat. Shabbat can be an antidote to the hectic pace of our lives. It’s the Jewish framework for helping us relax, refresh, and recharge. On the seventh day, we are told, shavat vayinafash, God rested and was refreshed. The verb, vayinafash, is drawn from the root nefesh, which means soul. God was re-souled on Shabbat. And we can be, too.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Judaism is the religion of time, aimed at the sanctification of time. … Jewish ritual may be characterized as … the architecture of time.” And within that architectural system, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals. … The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
In this year to come, let us find ways to pause in our busy-ness, if only for a moment, an hour, a dinner, a service, a day. Let us enter the great cathedral in the architecture of time to find there a sense of kedushah, menucha, or oneg. Let us pledge to ourselves that we will try on different ways of marking Shabbat, rituals and customs from ancient times or of our own making. Whether it is eating a different food, driving a different route, spending time doing things we enjoy with people we want to be around, ceasing from work, pausing between the notes, or remembering that time works differently on Shabbat, let us take the opportunity to stop and listen to the music of the world around us.
May the moments we take in the year ahead bring us a sense of renewal.
May we find that our celebration of Shabbat brings us times of recharging and refreshing. May it be a good, sweet, happy, and healthy New Year for us all.
and Shabbat Shalom!
 Washington Post, April 8, 2007: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html
 Genesis 2:2.
 Exodus 31:17.
 Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, Likrat Shabbat.
 Mishnah Shabbat 7:2.
 Exodus 31:17.
 Heschel, The Sabbath, pp. 8, 10.