For the Love of Shabbat – Parashat Yitro
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work— you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
I fell in love with Shabbat as a young rabbinical student in Jerusalem. My parents clearly laid the groundwork for this romance by “remembering” Shabbat in my childhood home with a beautiful Friday night dinner in the dining room. The table was always dressed in my mother’s fanciest linens, a homemade challah and a bottle of Manischewitz wine sat on top like the crown jewels, and our family of four gathered around to honor the end of the week.
But, the love affair? That happened in Jerusalem. I’m not sure whether it was the way that time seemed to stand still at the sounding of the Shabbat siren or how the sun cast an almost mystical glow on the Jerusalem limestone. Perhaps it was the quiet that fell on the city as cars and buses emptied from the streets and stores closed up shop or the way our newlywed apartment gleamed after a thorough cleaning. Or, it may have been the joy that came from sharing beautiful meals with friends and davenning with full hearts at exuberant prayer gatherings. What I know for sure is that in the midst of this Shabbat “honeymoon,” the seeds of a dream were planted within me that one day, I would sit around my family’s Shabbat table with a bunch of children who would reverently wait to receive the blessings I would whisper in their ears, chant kiddush, recite ha’motzi, and eat the Shabbat meal while discussing the happenings of the week and world affairs.
Fast forward nearly twenty years. That dream is now a reality…almost. I am blessed with three extraordinary children and, thankfully, still married to my beloved. In our home, we “remember” Shabbat week-in and week-out. The food is all cooked ahead of time. The china sits atop a white tablecloth alongside our beautiful collection of ritual objects. All our “devices” are powered off. The candles are lit. Shabbat is here, except that one child rarely sits at the table.
My middle child was extraordinarily active from the very beginning. Perhaps his rapid entry into the world was a foreshadowing of the speed with which he would move through life. Needless to say, the idea of sitting through a long set of rituals and a leisurely multi-course dinner, followed by lengthy conversation, is no easy task for him. So, after years of trying to “make him” sit through any single part of the ritual and meal, let alone the whole thing, we gave up. We threw up our hands and said, “This isn’t working.” It was torture for him and equally tortuous for us. As sad as it made me, I resigned myself to the fact that we would proceed with our Shabbat ritual while my son bounced a ball in the adjacent room, settled into a large jigsaw puzzle, or more likely, bounced a ball while simultaneously settling into a jigsaw puzzle and folding origami! I missed having his beautiful face around the table, but I could no longer tolerate forcing him to sit when he clearly could not do so. I remembered the injunction given in this week’s torah portion that all members of the family— including one’s son and daughter—are obligated to remember Shabbat. I couldn’t help feeling that I had failed in fulfilling this part of the commandment, but I consoled myself with the thought that we had done all we could.
Then, something remarkable happened. My special kid, an elite soccer player, was faced with a difficult decision. He could try out for the most competitive league in the area— which practiced three nights a week, including Friday nights— or down shift and compete at a less intensive level of play. Knowing my kid, I assumed he aspired to play at the highest level. I imagined he might even be relieved to get out of Shabbat dinner because of his soccer commitment. But before I could even engage him in a conversation about the decision that lay before him, he pronounced to me very clearly that there was no way he would try out for the advanced league. What?! He said: “I would miss out on Shabbat dinner with the family.” Now, you can imagine how strange this must have sounded to me. “You— missing out on Shabbat dinner? You aren’t even at the table!” And that is when it struck me: inclusion doesn’t mean that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. He was included, feeling every bit a part of our Shabbat experience even if he was not seated quietly around the table with everyone else. He reminded me that it is possible to be a part of something in his own way. When it came time to decide whether to “remember” Shabbat or to “remember” soccer, my son didn’t hesitate.
Once again, my “special-needs” child taught me a powerful lesson. The experience of Shabbat is about so much more than following norms around the table. The Shabbat magic that we cook up in our home and the love that we share is felt no matter what room we find ourselves in. And, the alchemy of Shabbat, family, love, and sacred time will be “remembered” when conflicting options get in the way. Somehow, in a process beyond what I can fully concretize or articulate, I mysteriously passed on my love of Shabbat to my son.
As a post-script, nearly one year after this soccer decision was made, my son sits at the Shabbat table almost every week and he is usually the last one sitting there, begging for more family stories, more conversation, and… more dessert.