A few weeks ago, the Yeshiva University newspaper, the Commentator reported an interview that took place in YU with former NBA all-star, Amare Stoudemire. They don’t typically interview NBA stars, but Stoudemire is anything but typical. A few months Amare changed his name to Yehoshafat and became a convert to our faith. You could see pictures of Yehoshafat studying Gemara, wearing a black hat, and videos of him sharing Divrei Torah. It’s really something.
I’ll share a couple of incredible quotes from the interview:
“I’m not a gefilte fish guy,” he quipped. “I love the concept… keeping you from borer, separating on Shabbos. But the taste… not my deal.” Chulent is a different story. “If it’s made properly with a little extra spice, then we’re good to go.”
Or, “The idea is always to stay strong… There [are] going to be times when the yetzer ha’ra [evil inclination] is gonna come after you; there [are] gonna be times that maybe you’ll be a little bit confused, but the ideal is to always keep your mind focused on Hashem. Never disconnect from Hashem and you’ll always find the correct derech — the correct path. So never get discouraged, stay with it, stay strong and keep pushing forward.”
But my absolute favorite was this one: “When you’re guarding Shaq, you just have to do your best. When you’re learning Gemara, you gotta do more than your best.”
Aside from the news of his conversion, what really made the Jewish news was the fact that shortly after converting the Brooklyn Nets hired him to join their coaching staff. One problem, “ain’t gonna work on Saturday.” But guess what? They hired him anyway. And so Amare Stoudamire joins the ranks of other high profile Shomer Shabbos individuals. From former Vice-Presidential Candidate, Senator Lieberman, through President Trump’s lead defense attorney, to Chani Neuberger, who was recently appointed as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology. You can be Shomer Shabbos and live in the world.
It’s not to say there aren’t challenges, but it is certainly far easier than ever to keep the rules of Shabbos and hold down a good job.
Keeping the rules of Shabbos, as complex as they are, in one respect is now the easy part of Shabbos. Flexible work schedules, timers, and so many other social and technological advancements that make keeping Shabbos doable. The challenge is not being distracted by those rules and limitations. Too many people feel restricted and constrained by Shabbos, and that is a tragedy.
The laws of Shabbos are cumbersome only if we don’t appreciate their function. The role of the many restrictions is to remind us that we are dealing with something sensitive that needs constant awareness. To quote Heschel, “One cannot… operate on a brain with a plowshare.” Shabbos, with all its minute and all-encompassing rules, ensures that we know we are dealing with something special. The laws, so to speak, clear a path, and in its place, we are able to experience something very special and unique.
I’d like to share with you today a summary of Heschel’s book, the Sabbath. It’s a short book, less than 100 pages, and well worth the read. He is one of the most eloquent Jewish writers. I certainly do not agree with many things he has written as some of his ideas seem to be out of line with our tradition. But the Sabbath is a most important and moving book which can transform our Shabbos experience.
He begins by describing what Shabbos is not. He quotes Seneca and other Roman thinkers who saw in Shabbos an expression of the Jewish People’s laziness. Everyone else in the ancient world worked every day and only the Jews slacked off.
Philo, one of the great defenders of our faith, retorted that even athletes need to catch their breath. The goal of Shabbos, he wrote, is to help us be better workers. By resting, we will be strengthened and be able to work even harder.
But of course, this is mere apologetics and completely inconsistent with our worldview. Work is not the goal. We work so that we have Shabbos. Not the other way around.
So what is the role of Shabbos?
And I quote: “Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem – how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”
In other words, we are slaves to the world around us. Whether it is people whose opinion we live and die by. Whether it is things or experiences that we are drawn after and cannot seem to live without. Technology that was meant to help us but often traps us.
“The solution of man’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization,” writes Heschel, “but in attaining some degree of independence of it.”
We Jews do not believe in abstinence, in escaping from the world, but in order to attain some level of harmony, we cannot be its slave. And so we once escape we flex our independent muscles. We are not bound by our profession, we sit equally as kings and queens (good ones, not like the British?), and we create a small and healthy gap between us and the physical world.
This idea has become rather trendy; the notion of a Digital Sabbath. Many people, Jew and non-Jew alike, recognize that we have yet to figure out how to properly interact with technology and so at the very least, to ensure a sense of identity independent of its sway, once a week we shut it off. It’s healthy and can help ensure that we don’t get swallowed up in our devices.
That’s important, essential, but still superficial. Shabbos is that and so much more.
Hechel’s main thesis is that Shabbos creates a sanctuary of time. In this week’s parsha we find a juxtaposition between the Mishkan and Shabbos, and that is so to convey this idea – the Mishkan is a structure, a beautiful, exquisite, detailed structure in space and Shabbos is a beautiful, exquisite, detailed structure in time.
You and I, all humans, are mostly unfamiliar with time. We are only familiar with space. It’s too abstract. But it’s very real. The reason we describe Shabbos as a queen, the reason we bow to her at the end of L’cha Dodi, is to convey that Shabbos is not empty time, just a blank span of 24 hours, no! Shabbos is something we meet.
This is one of the novel ideas found in the Torah; that time can be sanctified, and it is space, i.e., the material world, which needs to receive its holiness from time. There is constant ambiguity regarding space in the Torah. Eretz Yisrael is not called the Holy Land in the Torah. Even the place of the Mikdash is referred to as, “the place which I will choose” implying that it is not intrinsic. We find far more mention of the “day of Hashem” than the “house of Hashem” in the prophets. idea that time is substantive Judaism taught the world about holiness in time. The very first Mitzvah the Jewish People were given in Egypt is the one we read of in the second Torah, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem.” The cycle of the month, time itself, is a gift to the Jewish People. A gift which the Jewish People were meant to teach the world.
Time is eternal, space decays.
Time cannot be shaped by us; it is both near and far.
Space is exclusive; I stand here, and you stand there. Time is shared.
Time, explains Heschel, is the essence of the spirit. At the very least it is the greatest metaphor for what spirituality is; eternal, ethereal, universal, and even beautiful – but only if you learn to appreciate it.
Writes Heschel, “Everyone will admit the Grand Canyon is more awe-inspiring than a trench. Everyone knows the difference between a worm and an eagle. But how many of us have a similar discretion for the diversity of time?”
Our sensitivity to time is the sensitivity to spirituality. The goal of Shabbos is to sensitize us to time.
Shabbos, write the mystics, is not only mei’ein Olam Haba, similar to the World to Come, as the Talmud puts it. But rather, those words should be read, ma’ayan Olam Haba, it is the wellspring of the World to Come. If we do not learn to appreciate Shabbos, i.e. spirituality, we will not be able to appreciate the world to come.
There is a story of a Rabbi who visited the world to come and saw rabbis learning. He was disappointed’ this is it?! This is what we do on earth. But as he was walking away, he was told, “You misunderstood. They are not in Olam Haba, Olam Haba is in them.” What that means is that we believe that one can taste eternity on earth. The more we listen to our soul, the more we become sensitive to the nuances of time, the more we think in spiritual terms, the more we live in Olam Haba. When we die, it is just a continuation. And so, Olam Haba is meaningful, but only if you start now.
One final quote to bring this together: “There is a world of things and a world of spirit… We usually think that the earth is our mother, that time is money, and profit is our mate. The seventh day is a reminder that G-d is our father, that time is life, and the spirit our mate.”
Shabbos frees us; our identity is independent of our job, our self-worth is independent of likes; we are forced to come face to face with ourselves, with our soul; who we are, where are we going, where do we want to be going. The restrictions – yes, there are many, but they create a space, a space in time to remind us that our life is a sanctuary. That we are building something far greater than a resume and a shallow legacy.
For these reasons, we call Shabbos a gift. It is an otherworldly gift, allowing us to break through the space of this world, freeing us of the many things and people we are dependent on, giving us a glimpse into eternity. Good Shabbos!