Zachor Et Yom Ha-Shabbat: “What Does it Mean to Remember the Sabbath?”

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Cantor Sager at the Shabbat Service on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

One day, when I was a 4th grader at the Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago, my Hebrew teacher asked me:  “What does your father do on Shabbat?”

I’m sure the question had something to do with what we were studying, but I remember being taken by surprise by her question and responded with the first thing that popped into my head:  “He sleeps!”
(My father’s Shabbat afternoon nap was built into the structure of my childhood universe!)

That bit of personal family information was not what Mrs. Goldstein was looking for:    “No, no, in the morning – what does he do Shabbat morning?  Where does he go?”

Oh, that was easy:  “He goes to Synagogue!”

That was the answer she was looking for!

I have often wondered why that particular exchange has remained vividly in my memory for so many years.  Was it my childhood embarrassment that I thought first of my father’s Shabbat nap rather than his attendance at services – even though I was most often by his side?  Was it my surprise that my Hebrew teacher would somehow know of my father’s Shabbat whereabouts?  Was it a sense of pride that he was considered an exemplar of Shabbat observance in my synagogue/day school world where my 9-year-old mind assumed everyone did what we did?

Whatever the reason, the exchange has taken on additional dimensions through the years as Shabbat observance, in general, has seemed increasingly to be haphazard at best and too often ignored altogether.

Recently, I did a very brief, informal survey of our Women of Fairmount Temple Board.  I asked how many did somethinin recognition of Shabbat.   I didn’t ask what, just if Shabbat was acknowledged in any way.  Most of the hands went up.  When I asked how many of their children and/or grandchildren, nieces or nephews had some kind of Shabbat practice, the response was far fewer – unless it was prepared, motivated, created by the women in the room, who feel the responsibility to plan Shabbat meals, as well as holiday observances for their families.

I could easily lament the loss of Shabbat:  its beauty and poetry, its light and warmth, its anticipation of eternity and simultaneous focus on the here and now.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has written eloquently on our subject:  There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.  Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.  The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

We might ask:  If it is so beautiful, so meaningful, so beneficial for our spiritual well-being and a hallmark of our very existence as Jews, why is it not more widely observed?  Why does it seem to be largely absent from the lives of so many?  According to the most recent Pew Study, less than one quarter (23%) of all American Jews light candles on Shabbat and that percentage goes down even further if we consider only Reform Jews.  This does not mean that only those who light candles are observing Shabbat.  It is just one indicator of what we know empirically:  by and large, our most liberal Jews are not acknowledging Shabbat in any way.  I know this from the vast majority of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.  When I ask them:  “What do we do on Shabbat?” I usually get a fairly blank look in response.  Sometimes, a parent will prompt his/her child with the question: “What do we do at Nanna’s house when we go there for Friday night?”  That will usually elicit a response of “light candles, drink wine, and eat challah.”  What is clear is that these rituals belong at the grandparent’s house.  There is no sense of ownership on the part of the student and his/her parents.

My purpose is not to cry “doom and gloom” for the Jewish people because of our paltry Shabbat observance.  On the contrary, while I recognize that we face significant challenges, I am fundamentally optimistic about our future.  What I am exploring with you tonight is confined to what it means to remember the Sabbath, especially in light of so many who don’t!

This evening, we heard chanted the source text for Shabbat observance:  “God spoke all these words saying:….Remember the Sabbath day and make it holy…”

Does anyone remember why we are to remember the Sabbath day?
“For in 6 days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea – and all that is in them – and then rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

As beings created in the image of God, we work for 6 days as God worked for 6 days; we rest on the 7th day as God rested on the 7th day.

Not because it’s a time for family and relationships

Not because it’s a time to gather with the community.

Not because we want to share beautiful rituals, good food, a sense of gratitude for all of our blessings.

We may do all of these things, but they are not why, in the Book of Exodus, we are enjoined to observe the Sabbath.

Interestingly, the Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah with slight variations – most of which occur in the 4th commandment, which concerns the Sabbath.  Whereas in the Book of Exodus, which we read on this Shabbat, we are instructed to Remember the Sabbath day, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we are instructed:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”

But this time there is a different rationale for our observance.  Does anyone remember why we are to observe the Sabbath day?  Hazard a guess?

Observe the Sabbath because you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; Zachor, remember, because God rested on the 7th day, Shamor, Observe, because you were a slave in Egypt and God freed you from the House of bondage

As the rabbis were uncomfortable with any discrepancy or inconsistency in the Torah, they created a most ingenious Midrash to explain the difference between the two versions of the same commandment.  They determined that God spoke both words in unison – so that we are commanded to remember and to observe the Sabbath, equally, simultaneously, in unison.

Thus we are given compelling theological and historical reasons to observe the Sabbath:  to be like God who rested after 6 days of work, and because we were slaves – those whose lives are ruled by others and therefore cannot exercise their God-given freedom to rest.  These are powerful rationales and yet, I suspect, that not many of us are here tonight observing the Sabbath either because God rested or because God freed us from the land of Egypt. (Perhaps, indirectly!)

Is there a meaningful, sufficient, contemporary reason to keep the Sabbath?  A reason that might capture the imaginations and interest of a majority of Jews beyond a sense of nostalgia, of warm family memories, and the comfort of a seemingly simpler time?

I believe that there is and I believe it has to do with its very comandedness.  The Sabbat is the only Jewish holiday observance that is one of the Ten Commandments.  Pesach, which is the most observed of all the Jewish holidays, is not one of the Ten Commandments.  Neither is Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  Only Shabbat has the stature, the importance and, perhaps, the eternity to be so designated.  What makes the Ten Commandments unique is that they are “apodictic”.  In other words, they are absolutes.  They are not suggestions or requests.  They are authoritative and irrefutable.  They are unchanging and immutable.  There are no excuses, no exceptions, no conditions.  They are eternal, eternally true, and eternally binding.

Remember the 7th day – every single week. Without fail. Without excuse.  Without skipping.

But why?  What makes the Sabbath so important?  So uncompromisable?  So essential to the moral structure of the universe?

As you may remember, the first three commandments deal only with God:  ‘I am Adonai your God,” is the beginning of all Jewish belief.  It is our primary, non-negotiable statement about the God who brought us out of Egypt and with whom we entered into an historic relationship in order to accomplish something God could not accomplish alone:  the redemption of humanity.

The second commandment demands recognition of God’s singularity by forbidding representation of God in any kind of manufactured image.

The third forbids the misuse of God’s name in any context.  We must not invoke God’s name wrongly or in vain.  To do so devalues our awe of and respect for God.

And then we have the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy.”  Having established what belief in One God requires of us, we begin to learn what it means to be created in the image of that God.  Slaves cannot rest.  Only free people can accept God’s sovereignty which not only created, but insists upon our humanity.

“Thus says Adonai:  Let my people go that they may serve Me.”  We serve God: not Pharaoh, not Ra, god of the sun, not any of the deities of Egypt or Babylon or Persia or Rome; not the Turks, the Spanish, the French or English.  We do not worship dictators, kings, queens, prime ministers, or presidents.  We do not worship Reason or Romanticism, Science or History, Progress or Perfectability, the Individual or the Group.

We serve only God and, in doing so, paradoxically, we are most free, and, therefore, most human.  Thus the dual nature of Shabbat’s commandedness:  We rest as God rested because God demonstrated in Egypt and we continue to bear witness, week in and week out, that we are not only God-created we are  God-liberated.

The Sabbath is Israel’s most original contribution to world law.  It is the vehicle through which we affirm with absolute certainty and conviction that to be human is to be free.  And further, it is the inalienable right of every human being to rest.  Inherent in the Torah’s demands of us and its rationale in Creation and in Egypt is, I believe, a compelling contemporary motivation for Shabbat.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the technological tyranny that constrains our lives.  Every day, there is another article or news report or study that confirms how dependent we are on our devices:  cell phones, iPads, computers and tablets, and how much social media platforms are impacting, largely negatively, our lives.  What could it mean for Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, as well as Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation to make Shabbat an unplugged day?  Once a week to be liberated from the devices that, increasingly, rule our time, our thoughts, our interactions and our discourse.  This is servitude and idolatry as surely as the Golden Calf of our forebears.

There is more:  we are enslaved by, or we worship our work, our exercise, our diets, our Netflix favorites, our playlists, our multi-tasking prowess, our infinite diversions.  What might it mean to re-discover, to re-define, and even to re-imagine Shabbat as a day on which we relinquish the idolatries of the other six days of the week, a day on which we contemplate Creation that is not ours, a day on which nothing claims us but the deepest yearnings of our hearts and souls, and the loftiest aspirations of our minds and spirits, a day on which we assert and affirm our freedom, our freedon from all dominance; a day on which we, as liberated human beings, rediscover our essential humanity and thereby, deliver the  uniquely Jewish message that only God is absolute.

I can imagine such a Shabbat; a Shabbat we could observe and remember every week of our lives.