Meditation, Abstinence, Silence, Frugality, Solitude, Roman Emperor And Shabbat [Parshat Vayakhel By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the L-rd (Ex 35:2)

 An elderly Jewish woman from Brooklyn goes in search of a famous guru. She takes a plane to India and then a boat up a river, and then hikes into the mountains with local guides. Eventually she reaches the hallowed portals. There she is told that she can only say five words to the guru. “Fine,” she says, and is told to wait outside the inner sanctum where the wise guru is seated. Finally he calls for the next in line to be admitted. She stands before the famous guru and says her five words, “Bernie, enough already, come home!”

Meditation … Abstinence … Silence … Frugality … Solitude … there are so many ways in which we try find out what our souls are hungry for, what will give us real fulfilment. In search of that elusive answer men and women throughout history have undergone privations, have become hermits, have scaled the greatest heights and pushed their bodies to the limits of endurance.

Judaism gives us the tried and tested recipe for a contented soul and a fulfilled life, and one of the main ingredients in that recipe is called Shabbat. The story is told of Roman Emperor Antoninus who dined at the home of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi on two consecutive occasions. The first meal was on Shabbat and was cold, the second was a weekday and was piping hot, and Antoninus was puzzled. “Tell me,” he inquired of the rabbi, “why did the cold food taste so good, even better than the hot meal? Was there perhaps a special ingredient?”

“Yes,” replied Rabbi Yehudah, “but it is an ingredient you cannot buy. We call that ingredient Shabbat.”

The Sages teach us that Shabbat itself has an amazing transformative power; a power to change the mundane into the holy. Profane space and time become holy space and time. The whole atmosphere changes to become a special Shabbat atmosphere.

Author and playwright Herman Wouk describes movingly how keeping Shabbat whilst directing plays on Broadway affected his working life and those around him:

I have sometimes felt guilty of treason, holding to the Shabbat in such a desperate situation … (Nevertheless,) I have reluctantly taken leave of my colleagues on Fridayafternoon, and rejoined them on Saturday night. The play has never collapsed in the meantime. Leaving the gloomy theatre, the littered coffee cups, the jumbled scarred-up scripts, the haggard actors, the knuckle-gnawing producer, the clattering typewriter, and the dense tobacco smoke has been a startling change, very like a brief return from the wars.

My wife and my boys, whose existence I have almost forgotten are waiting for me, dressed in holiday clothes, and looking to me marvellously attractive. We have sat down to a splendid dinner, at a table graced with flowers and the old Shabbat symbols; the burning candles, the twisted challah loaves, the stuffed fish, and my grandfather’s silver goblet brimming with wine. I have blessed my boys with the ancient blessings; we have sung the Shabbat table hymns.

For me it is a retreat into restorative magic. The boys are at home in the synagogue, and they like it. They like even more the assured presence of their parents. In the weekday press of schooling, household chores, and work – and especially in play producing time – it often happens that they see little of us. On Shabbat we are always there and they know it. They know too that I am not working and that my wife is at her ease. It is their day. It is my day, too. The telephone is silent. I can think, read, study, walk or do nothing. It is an oasis of quiet. My producer one Saturdaynight said to me, “I don’t envy you your religion, but I envy you your Shabbat.”

It is that special Shabbat atmosphere which is so important that we preserve and pass on to the next generations. We live in a world so immersed in instant communications that it becomes a great struggle to make our homes “Shabbat friendly,” as it means cutting off certain lines of regular communication. No more texts, calls, emails, tweets, instant messages and so on. But when we do that, something special happens in our lives and in our relationships with those around us…

So many families today are breaking up for the tragic reason that the members of the family don’t give each other the time they deserve … and when our loved ones feel that we love the newspaper or the email or the TV more than them, they no longer feel like they are loved ones. Who likes to be second best to an iPhone!?

For one day out of every week we stop to take stock, we take time out of our hectic lives to meditate a little on where we have been and where we are going; to slow down the racing hands of the clock, and savour the moment. We can think about what our mission in life is … not our daily mission of earning a crust and feeding the family – but our ultimate mission – the task our souls were placed on this earth to achieve. And in shul, whether on Friday night, Shabbat morning or afternoon we take a few moments to talk to our Creator. We thank and bless Him for all he does for us, and pray He continues to give us those things that we are lacking.

If we can pass on that special ingredient to our kids, we can sure that they too will have access to the stability and serenity that Shabbat brings the entire family. To pass it on, we just need to serve it once a week, cold or hot.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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