Shabbat: The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution by Lauren Shaps
Hey to the Chevra,
Happy 2016!! Tonight is New Year’s Eve, best known for festive parties and resolutions. A perpetually recurring resolution, one we easily make and then break, is to spend more time with family and friends. But, a few weeks, or days, or minutes later, we get caught up in the quest for evermore and go back to prioritizing doing over being. The best way to stick to our quality-time-with-family-and-friends resolution is to incorporate more of Shabbat – just chillin’, unplugged, no phones, no screens – into our lives.
This week, we begin to read the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus), the story of the birth of our nation. The Torah reading for this week, Parashat Shemot, describes the descent of Jacob's offspring from freedom to slavery. The Torah tells us "the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with crushing harshness. They embittered their lives with hard labour, with mortar and with bricks, and with every work of the field; all their labours that they made them work were with parech (crushing harshness)" (Exodus 1:13-14).
While the Torah may be speaking of slavery in ancient Egypt, there is much to learn about that endless quest for work-life balance. For most of history, and in parts of the world today, there were and are no options. Constant labour keeps starvation at bay.
But, we in the Western world have some significant choices. The challenges of balance come in a dramatically different way. It seems we are forced to work harder and harder just to stay afloat. Most of us are continuously on call by smartphone, pager, WhatsApp – you name it. Work involves more travel. Stores are open 24/7 and on traditional holidays. Even banks have increased their hours "for our convenience," which forces their employees to work evenings and weekends. With economies rebounding ever so slowly, our insecurity is greater than ever. Business is brutal. We worry that we may not have jobs next year and so we work harder and more dutifully.
In previous generations most families managed with less. A penny saved was a penny earned. Raising children was a valued role. Important and fulfilling volunteer work filled spare moments. Significant contributions of time and energy were made to synagogues, community organizations and support for Israel. At a funeral of a friend’s mother, I heard about the huge effort that went into the annual Hadassah bazaar, which was long gone by the time I moved to town.
The Sages explain the term avodah parech as meaningless work. It is work that breaks a person, not only because of the intensity and exhaustion but because it lacks any sort of meaningful outcome. Purposeful work, what the Torah terms melachah, can be exhilarating, fulfilling, ennobling. So some important questions we should ask ourselves are: Is my work avodat parech? Or is it work that brings a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Am I living to work or working to live? If I'm working too hard and all the time, then who is the taskmaster, whip in hand? Is it my employer, the economic times, the threat of global competition, the need for bigger, better, more and more? The answers will be different for each of us, but these are questions that need to be asked.
Another form of modern-day enslavement is the pursuit of more. It is ironic that most of us have more stuff than anyone living a hundred years ago could have ever imagined. It is easy to live on the consumer treadmill and so hard to get off. To finance our lifestyles, we have to work long and hard.
The Midrash tells us that early on, when Moses was still living in the palace, he came to Pharaoh with a brilliant recommendation. Moses suggested that if Pharaoh wanted the Israelites to be even more productive, he should give them one day a week to rest up. Even Pharaoh understood that being "on" 24/7 was counterproductive. He agreed and Moses recommended the seventh day, Shabbat, as that day.
Ritual forces us to do things we might not otherwise do. I know people who buy season tickets to the symphony or the hockey game. On concert night, they might not want to go, but because they have the tickets they venture out even when tired or in bad weather. Mitzvot help us to make conscious choices, to get a handle on the inner child and the inner slave driver, to be mindful of how we spend our time, our energy, our money. Shabbat closes the door to work as well as to our addictive quest for activity and acquisition. It gives us the strength to set clear limits – "No we won't be going to the concert on Friday night; the ski hill or the mall on Saturday."
What will we be doing instead? Being productive in other ways. Acquiring connection to G-d, to our families, friends and communities. Making time and space to be a human being, not just a human doing.
This year, consider resolving to make Friday family-dinner night and Saturday shul time instead of show time. Take a break from the working world, buy season tickets to Shabbat and make it a Great Day!
Happy 2016 and Shabbat Shalom,
Lauren Shaps, MSW, is a JWRP city leader and a full time adult Jewish educator. She works closely with her husband, Rabbi Zischa Shaps and they are blessed with 5 wonderful children. Contact at email@example.com