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Discovering Angels

May 12, 2011 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

How the Jewish Sabbath transformed my life.

excerpted from Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum 2011)

I have always been a Judaism junkie. I was raised in a Conservative home, where we kept "kosher-ish," lit Shabbat candles on Friday night (sometimes), drove to synagogue on Saturday morning (sometimes), and celebrated some of the holidays. It was a warm, loving home, but not intensely spiritual.

And then there was me. The reason we lit the candles on Fridays and went to synagogue at all was because I loved it. My favorite record was Fiddler on the Roof. My favorite book was The Chosen. I can't say I liked Hebrew School, but I loved the fact that my teachers there seemed to have something that I didn't: a familiarity with Jewish texts and traditions about which I didn't even know how to ask. I wanted to learn the Talmud, but I didn't even know what its volumes were called. I wanted to study Jewish philosophy, but couldn't name a single Jewish thinker.

And so I was left with a saccharine, ersatz Judaism. The Judaism of Fiddler on the Roof (which I still love) and Yentl (which I don't). The Judaism of most American Jews, which seems to hint to a wealth of wisdom and beauty in our religion and tradition, but doesn't tell you just what it is. The Judaism that offers nuggets of beauty in rabbis' sermons and quotes displayed on the walls of Jewish museums and synagogues, but fails to educate its children to know the source of those quotes and aphorisms. There is a whole class of "professional Jews" in most Jewish communities today that act as the gatekeepers to our traditions, without educating or steeping their congregants.

Related Article: Arriving at Sinai

After years of yearning for an authentic Judaism that I never could understand or locate, I went away to college. One Saturday during my sophomore year at Harvard University, I walked around Harvard Square, exploring the campus. Mid-afternoon, I passed Harvard Hillel and knocked on the door. I knew that Shabbat services would be long over, but I was homesick and yearned for a connection to Judaism that a center like Hillel might provide. I wanted to see a friendly face.

I'll never forget the moment, for it completely changed my life.

The door was answered by another sophomore – I'll never forget the moment, for it completely changed my life – and she answered that yes, indeed, I had missed services and Shabbat lunch, too. But, she said, I could come back at five o'clock for "Shalosh Seudos," and closed the door. Now, I didn't know she had said "Shalosh Seudos" (the "third meal" one eats on Shabbat) because I'd never heard of such a thing. "Shalosh Seudos" sounded like gobbledegook to me, but I did understand the five o'clock part, and I returned to Hillel then.

There were about three dozen students at Hillel, and we sat down to eat a light meal of pita bread, hummus, and other snacks. Everyone was friendly and we chatted. Toward the end of the meal, the students started singing. First Yedid Nefesh, "Beloved of My Soul," a song that compares the Jewish people to a deer running to do the will of their beloved God. (That song became so important to me that, 12 years later, I chose it to be played as I walked to my chuppah.) Then, without breaking the same slow, plaintive, vaguely Eastern tune, the students segued into Psalm 23, with the famous words, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil."

I'd never known where that line came from and I was captivated. As the song went on, building in intensity, I choked up; not the emotion I'd expected to encounter on a late Saturday afternoon at college.

We ended Shabbat with Havdalah and I felt energized and refreshed. I couldn't wait until the next week. I went back again and again, Saturday after Saturday, until I, too, knew the songs and the blessings, not only of Shalosh Seudos but of the entire Shabbat experience.

Related Article: Shabbat: Heaven on Earth

Years later, as we were about to graduate, I talked with a fellow student about our college experiences. He, too, had become more Jewishly involved, and I asked him if he had any regrets, for instance, not eating in any of the popular non-kosher student hangouts or not attending some activities on Friday nights. He said that yes, he had missed out on some experiences, but had more than made up for those losses with the beauty and meaning of the Jewish experiences. I instantly knew what he meant.

Sacred Family Time

The Midrash tells us that when God created the world and made the days of the week one particular day – Saturday – complained to God. "Sunday has Monday," Saturday complained, "and Tuesday has Wednesday. Thursday has Friday, but I have no one.” God listened to Saturday's lament and said, "I will give you a partner. The Jewish people will be your partner."

This story captures the essential relationship between the Jewish people and Shabbat. As we usher in Shabbat on Friday night, Jews sing Lecha Dodi, "Welcome the Shabbat bride." And we, the Jewish people, are her groom.

What does this mean? Theologically, it is a profound metaphor, but I've always thought about it practically. Just as one nurtures a marriage, so too a Jew nurtures the relationship with Shabbat. And just as one is renewed by one's relationship with a spouse, one is renewed by Shabbat.

Shabbat unites us as a family and enables us to transcend the ordinary.

This is the one day of the week when my husband and I focus most on each other, when we play most intensely with our kids. Shabbat unites us as a family. We all work so hard to prepare and make it special, and then once it begins, we all feel bathed in a glow of being caught up in something together, of striving to imbue our every moment with beauty and gratitude for the world God created for us.

This is the goal of Shabbat: transcending the ordinary. During the week, we run around and take care of business and our material needs. This is important, but what is it all for? As I look around my cluttered house these days and listen to my children's demands for ever more activities, lessons, and toys, I sometimes think of words of lament the poet William Wordsworth wrote 150 years ago:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

What is it all for? Where is the connection? The human interaction? The time to think? Shabbat provides the structure necessary for sitting quietly. For having over guests who don't need to run somewhere else after a given length of time. For having long conversations with our children. For finishing books. For taking walks outside. For talking to God. For studying the Torah. It gives the week a focus and a structure. Of all the gifts the Jews have given the world, the concept of a "weekend" is perhaps the most valuable. We all need time to rest and recharge, a change of pace from the week.

On a more practical note, too, Shabbat offers us a measure of grace and formality in our increasingly hectic, informal world. I often read of the demise of the dining room in modern houses, yet in my family, the dining room is used every week, for dinner on Friday night and all day Saturday. Whereas during the week our dinners together last perhaps 20 minutes if we're lucky, on Shabbat, our meals are multi-course affairs, full of song and conversation.

Weekly Cornerstone

I’ve found that observing Shabbat is easier once you get used to setting it aside as a special day, the best day of the week. Individuals and families who observe Shabbat routinely do this without thinking about it, and those who want to make the transition to observing Shabbat can ease their paths by designating Shabbat the time to enjoy the best of what they have. Thus, in my home, for example, we rarely eat dessert after dinner during the week, but we always have lots of dessert on Friday night and Saturdays. During the week, I insist on my kids eating healthy breakfasts, but on Shabbat we make special "surprise sandwiches" (which feature chocolate as a primary ingredient). During the week, my husband and I are often too busy to play games or read to the kids, but on Shabbat we spend hours playing board games and reading out loud.

It isn't just children's activities that can be indulged on Shabbat. Once people begin integrating Shabbat into their lives, it becomes natural to reserve all the best things for that day. Here are two small examples that show how unconscious this reflex to honor Shabbat becomes. I once bought a book for my kids and it quickly became a favorite: an amazing, magical, beautifully illustrated picture book about a child spending a summer with his grandmother exploring a river. The book is not Jewish or Shabbat-oriented in any way, but it is lovely, and my oldest son told me it really ought to be a "Shabbat book" that we take out only on Shabbat. Nobody ever told him to restrict our book selections in this way, but to this boy who has grown up observing Shabbat, it seemed natural that beautiful, special things would be reserved especially for this special day.

It was natural for me to start wearing it on Shabbat.

When my son suggested this, I thought it was quaint. But then I unconsciously did the same thing some years later. When my grandmother, of blessed memory, died, I inherited her very ornate engagement ring. The ring is too large and too grand to fit into my lifestyle. I would never wear it normally, but it was natural for me to start wearing it on Shabbat, my weekly time to become a subtly different person, and enjoy the finest things in my life.

Yet why shouldn't we enjoy our good clothes, our good china, our favorite foods any time we want? Why horde them all for one weekly 25-hour period? In many years of observing Shabbat, I've found the answer to this question is deeply counterintuitive: by saving our best things for Shabbat, we actually use them more than we would otherwise. For instance, when was the last time you used your good china? Ate in your dining room? Wore your best jewelry? Invited over lots of guests?

For many people I know, the answer is months or even years ago. One friend lives in a house with a beautiful dining room – which they have used exactly once in five years of residence. I'm sure that when they bought their house, they looked at the pretty dining room and envisioned lovely family meals there. Yet busy life intervenes, and so often we never get out of "everyday" mode. They intend to set aside time for special meals and other times, but like everybody else, they are very busy people, and that special time gets shunted aside.

Shabbat might only come once a week, but it comes every week. It gives us a regular date to make everything in our homes and lives special.


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