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The Selfish Shabbat

May 9, 2009 | by Sarah Zeldman

I hardly believed in God's existence when I started to observe Shabbat. My observance began for one reason only: I was selfish.

I wish I could say that I began to observe Shabbat because I'm such a spiritual person and yearned desperately to connect with God. But that would be a lie. I hardly believed in God's existence when I started to observe Shabbat.

I also wish I could say that I began to observe Shabbat after experiencing really cool things like meditating with the Buddhists and dancing with the Sufis. But that too would be a lie. I didn't search other religions on a quest for spiritual truth before I explored Judaism.

I began to observe Shabbat for only one reason. I was selfish.

I looked around me and saw friends and family who never knew when to stop working. They never stopped pursuing the American Dream. I saw friends who were depressed and wondering, "Is this what life is all about?" But they suppressed the question in various ways because they did not know where to go for answers.

I saw families come apart at the seams, partly due to a commitment to the "pursuit of happiness" (read: financial wealth) at the expense of a commitment to family life and spiritual growth. I saw a country that more and more tragically reflected the consequence of these decisions.

So I began to observe Shabbat, because I wanted a better life.

The Boring Weekend

But first a little background. Until the age of 12, I received a typical Jewish day school education. My family sometimes had Friday night dinners, kept kosher at home, and celebrated major holidays. I loved being Jewish, but Judaism was not really part of my daily life.

After my Bat Mitzvah, most of our observances faded into the background, until I arrived at college. There I was involved with Hillel (where else do you meet the nice Jewish boys?), but I really wasn't interested in Judaism per se. I figured I had been there, done that, and it wasn't very interesting or inspiring. As is often the case with many day school graduates, my childhood knowledge of Judaism did not satisfy the needs of my adult mind. I thought that I knew pretty much all there was to learn.

Then I picked up a book called "Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, It's People and Its History" by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Everything changed. From that book, I learned that there was a lot I didn't know about Judaism, that there was literally a whole treasure chest of wisdom just waiting for me to open a book or ask a question.

So I asked and asked and asked. I spoke to people from all streams of Judaism: Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative -- even those crazy Orthodox people that my dad did business with. I went on Jewish learning programs and read and read and read some more. Eventually I couldn't refuse the invitations of our observant friends anymore, so I joined them for Shabbat.

What I saw actually moved me to tears.

I remember the car ride over there, I went through a checklist of things like: "Now, these people are Orthodox, so wear a skirt, watch your language, don't turn lights on and off, and just try to make it through this boring weekend with a smile."

But what I found was anything but boring. What I saw actually moved me to tears. I saw a family, not just a bunch of people related to each other, but a family of people relating to each other. I saw a family truly united by the knowledge that for the next 24 hours, they had no where to go and were thus totally committed to interacting with each other -- no business to conduct, no cooking to do, no phone calls to return.

In the eyes of the children, I saw an innocence and security that I had not seen in the secular world. I saw a satisfaction and relaxation in the parents which is so rare today. With everyone and everything dressed in their Shabbat best, and an atmosphere of total freedom in the air (that is, freedom from the mundane), I then understood why it is said, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat -- Shabbat has kept the Jews."

However, admiring Shabbat and keeping all the laws that make the atmosphere so special are two different things. Eventually I decided that I wanted Shabbat in my life, and I wanted it for my future family. So sometime in my junior year of college, I said to an observant friend, "Okay, Sussie. I have good news and bad news: The good news is that I want to start keeping Shabbat. The bad news is that I'm not doing it until after I graduate from college!"

Of all the mitzvot, I wanted Shabbat and only Shabbat -- like an item from a menu. Just Shabbat.

That's when my journey really began, because instead of just reading about Judaism, I started living it, step by step. The first Shabbat after I graduated from college, I didn't go anywhere. I didn't go to the mall, to the movies, or go out with my friends. I stayed home, cooked, built bookshelves and watched TV -- lots of things that an observant Jew wouldn't do on Shabbat! But I didn't go out.

After a few weeks of this, a friend said to me, "Sarah, that's good, but Shabbat isn't just about not doing things. It's also about doing things. Why don't you go to shul next week?"

I was completely lost in a sea of Hebrew.

The next Shabbat, I walked to shul, where I was completely lost in a sea of Hebrew. I just couldn't wait for them to get to some prayers I knew from my childhood, especially "Aleynu," the service's closing prayer. Not because I liked that prayer so much, but because once I heard "Aleynu" I knew the service would be over soon.

I survived the service, but afterward something unexpected happened. Many families, before they even knew my name, invited me over for Shabbat lunch, dinner, Passover and Chanukah next year if I was free! This was a new experience for me. I wondered, "Who are these people and how could they invite me, a stranger, into their home?"

My first reaction was, "Um...can I see some I.D., please?" Later I learned that they were doing something very normal according to the Torah. It is a special mitzvah of hachnasat orchim -- welcoming guests. This mitzvah made my process of observing Shabbat so much easier. I would go home with these families for lunch and enjoy my time there. Then I would go home and turn on all the lights -- just to show that I could!

Over the course of a year, I eventually stopped turning on the lights, stopped using the phone, and became fully Shabbat observant.

I had been true to my vow in college and had accomplished my goal -- I was Shabbat observant. That was where it was supposed to end. But I didn't stop there. Just like a steady drip of water can eventually carve a large boulder, so too Torah can enter the heart of someone as stubborn as me.

After being with Torah observant families every Shabbat for a year, I wanted more. If this one mitzvah could enhance my personal and family life so much, maybe other mitzvot could, too. Of course, I wasn't going to do those mitzvot that I didn't think would enhance my life, or that were too difficult. I told you I was selfish and my observance had nothing to do with God.

I felt like such a hypocrite. I was performing these mitzvot without any faith in God.

But I found I couldn't keep God out of the picture for very long. I felt like such a hypocrite. I was performing these mitzvot without any faith in God, or rather I should say, with overwhelming doubts and fears about the Creator of the universe. Yet I was regularly around families with their beautiful faith and connection to God, and it was time to go deeper. I knew that if I just continued doing the mitzvot I wanted, for me alone, I couldn't sustain all the positive changes I had made in my life, and I certainly wouldn't be able to pass them on to the next generation.

That's when I left for Israel to study at yeshiva. I went on a quest to get my questions answered and break down the walls of doubt and fear standing in the way of my connection with God. The road was long, between who I was when I got on that plane, to the woman I am now, who speaks to God daily to ask Him for strength and guidance.

One Step Closer

These days, I often meet 20-somethings and see in them myself. I want to tell them gently: If you think that you know all there is to know about Judaism, think again. Not even the greatest rabbi knows everything there is to know about Torah. Pick up a book. Or better yet, take a class. Don't rely on your childhood knowledge of Judaism. Make a commitment to study Judaism as an adult. You'll be surprised, both by what you didn't know, and by what you thought you knew.

Start with just one mitzvah.

And for those of you, like me, who find the mitzvot so beautiful, and want to add them to your life but are overwhelmed by their number and complexity, start with just one mitzvah. Learning how to live according to the Torah is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Start wherever you want to. Memorize one blessing and use it. Stop doing housework on Shabbat. Make a commitment to learn more about Torah.

Most importantly, keep on thinking, learning and asking questions. If you take one step closer toward God, then His strength and love, reflected through the mitzvot, will take you the rest of the way.

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