The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.
I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.
But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.
But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.
Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.
And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.
But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.
I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.
But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.
So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?