We Need Shabbat Now More Than Ever

Amidst the chaos of a pandemic, we need this weekly reminder to breathe.

Two Fridays ago, on a final grocery store run before officially locking myself alone inside my Brooklyn studio apartment, I purchased a box of 72 “Standard Shabbos Candles” for the first time in my life. I had recently reclaimed the candlestick holders I got for my bat mitzvah from a family storage unit outside Chicago, so as I stood in line at the grocery store looking into my basket — essentials for this pandemic programming — I felt grateful I’d somehow decided that Shabbat needed to be part of what will help me live through these unprecedented and dark times.

I grew up in a Reform Jewish household. We didn’t practice Shabbat in any consistent kind of way. There was a small stretch after I had already left home where my mom spearheaded lighting the candles many Friday nights. Other than my siblings’ and my b-mitzvahs, we didn’t go to synagogue on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. My mother regrets this, telling me now, “The sense of connection and continuity with our faith and Judaic heritage deserved more of a ritual in our home, albeit our Judaism was cherished and honored in many other ways.”

Now, as an adult, while Judaism remains a centering and important part of my life, I’ve still never properly kept Shabbat in my own home. I’ve had stages where I’ve been social-media free from sundown to sundown. And months where I posted d’var Torahs on Facebook each Friday afternoon. I’ve gone to Shabbat services on and off throughout my 20s and 30s, and I’ve spent many Shabbat meals at friends’ homes. I’ve most honored Shabbat rituals at Jewish conferences at which I was a presenter, or summer camps and synagogues where I had a weekend-long gig.

But I’ve never made it a part of my personal practice at home or even hosted a Shabbat meal. There is a long-standing tradition whereby the Rabbis teach us that Shabbat is both a day of rest and also a taste of “the world to come.” That’s how I’ve always thought of the ritual and practice itself — a future, an adulthood, a commandment to come. I’ll start doing Shabbat when I’m married. When I have kids.

Well, I’m 36 and single and spending this pandemic alone, so if not now, when?

I unequivocally need to be more tech-free. I’ve been feeling this for years. Of course now, amidst social distancing and the reality of COVID-19, my phone is my lifeline for connection (text messages, social media, FaceTime, calls) and my computer is my livelihood (writing articles, facilitating virtual workshops, performing virtual shows). I was already trying to unravel myself from feeling beholden to the noise. I have this hope that practicing Shabbat can help.

Even alone in my apartment, I am overwhelmed by space. What I am craving is: time.

In his book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space…It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.”

That’s what I want to gain during this indefinite amount of time we are being asked to stay at home, to stay inside. I want to recalibrate the essence of my being so that my life — the way I navigate through space and experience time — feels as awesome as the mystery of creation.

This isn’t going to be easy for me. I spent last Saturday non-stop on the phone, on FaceTime, and even emceeing a 300-person plus virtual Zoom campfire for my sleepaway camp. It was the busiest Saturday I’ve had in months. And I barely moved. And while it was soul-giving — which is all I’ve ever wanted Shabbat to be — it was still centered around technology. I don’t totally know what Shabbat is going to look like for me now, but I do know that I want to center it around stillness, even more so. Which means I’m probably going to have to make changes in my life.

Last Friday night, I participated in Lab/Shul’s first virtual Sabbath Queen by reading a poem of mine. As the service began, over 130 of us gathered from around the world were invited to light our own Shabbat candles. I kept myself in view of my laptop computer camera. I stood near candles three and four from my 72-candle box (I used the first two the prior Shabbat), and was so profoundly moved watching so many of us do this ritual collectively from the privacy of our homes, which is something — without this pandemic — we might not have otherwise done.

I’ve lit candles at home once or twice before. Tea lights handed out to me on the street corner by Chabad. But this was different. New. My own candle sticks. My own home. My own me.

Last week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, highlighted the commandment to observe Shabbat, including the demand to do it — or risk death. During his sermon, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie said the gist of this teaching was saying that, “If you don’t stop to activate the essence of Shabbat, you will die…If we don’t remember how to stop, we will be almost dead.”

That’s how I had personally started to feel even before this pandemic: If I kept going at the high-paced rate at which I was going, I was going to die. If I kept receiving and responding to hundreds of text messages and emails and social media posts a day, I was going to die. If I kept living in a society and world oriented around productivity and capitalism and success, I was going to die.

At another moment, Shira Kline, one of Lab/Shul’s Founding Ritual Leaders and the Director of Worship and Family Education Director, invited us to close our eyes to anchor our bodies into Shabbat. “Shabbat is an invitation to be that flow in the universe,” she said, “and to also know our own source and come home… This is an invitation to come home.”

For me, this pandemic is an invitation to come home.

In an email over the weekend, my friend David, who is in a similar headspace around honoring Shabbat and being more tech-free, wrote to me, “Sometimes it takes an act of God to return to God.”

Most of us are stuck at home, so the ultimate invitation, as Shira said, would be to ourselves. We need Shabbat more than ever.

I believe that we can make it through this time — and to the other side anew — if we follow the Sabbath’s lead.

Shabbat is a weekly prayer. I’m hoping to extend its gift. To let its sweetness stretch into every fiber of my being, every fiber of my home, every fiber of my quieting, calming body and breath.

Header Image by Fabian Strauch/picture alliance via Getty Images.

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