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This Shabbat, Make Time for Souling

This Shabbat, Make Time for Souling

Shabbat candles in silver candlesticks


I thought I invented the word until I Googled it and discovered it already exists.

But, because the existing definitions have nothing to do with what I had in mind, I’m going to reclaim – and redefine – it for us.

I love singing V’shamru at services. Taken directly from Exodus 31:16-17, the verses tell us to keep Shabbat as an eternal covenant, and that we are to rest, just as God rested after the six days of creation.

But the passage ends with a strange verb. It says that God “shavat v’yinafash.” God rested, but then what? The root of v’yinafash is clear – nefesh is soul – and it has something to do with breathing. But how are we to translate it in the context of V’shamru? God breathed? Caught Divine breath, as if exhausted from the work?

Many translations, including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and Mishkan T’filah, one of the Reform community’s prayer books, tell us that God was “refreshed.” Interestingly, in the Gates of Prayer, an earlier Refom prayer book, there was no attempt to translate v’yinafash at all. It simply says that God rested.

How can we make “soul” into a meaningful verb? We soul. God souled. On Shabbat, we go souling.

But what does it mean?

To soul means to seek out the sacred, to discover that which is awe-inspiring in the common, to move from the world of “stuff” to the world of spirit, from the prosaic to the profound, from the rational to the non-rational (with thanks to one of my professors, Dr. Eugene Borowitz, for teaching me the difference).

Souling means to set aside time to explore the eternal, the Eternal, and the essential. It involves restoring a connection to an innermost core and to that which is at the core of the universe. It means limiting pursuits to truth and peace and justice, and focusing on love and family and community. It means disconnecting from the secondary, leaving room to reconnect with what’s primary. Souling calls on us to find beauty and depth and meaning in that which otherwise merits only an occasional glance.

But how? Is there an app for that?

Indeed. The “how” is Shabbat.

With deep regret and perhaps longing too, we know that most of us can’t (or, if we’re being fully honest, won’t) create a Shabbat that allows for a full 25 hours of souling.

But do we dismiss Shabbat completely? Must Shabbat be an all-or-nothing proposition?

Our Reform thinking would tell us otherwise. In Introduction to Judaism: A Sourcebook, published by the Reform Movement, the chapter on Shabbat includes a “Chart of Pos­si­bil­i­ties and Begin­nings.” It’s not a list of “thou shalts,” but rather a list of places to start, encouraging readers to build from there. Some of the suggestions take hours, others, just minutes. Find a few ways to begin your own Shabbat souling, and see where they lead you.

Every rabbi dreams of Shabbat as a time marked by synagogues filled with people praying and studying together. We hope that our congregants share Shabbat dinners that begin with blessings, conclude with Birkat HaMazon (the blessing after meals) and z’mirot (traditionally, Shabbat dinner table songs), and are full of foods fit for the royalty we symbolically become when the sun sets on Friday afternoon. Sadly, even rabbis don’t often succeed in creating such a Shabbat for themselves and their families.

Nonetheless, start somewhere, and don’t give up – especially if it doesn’t “work” the first time. It takes three or four tries just to get past our self-consciousness. And don’t do it alone. Pirkei Avot tells us to find a teacher and a companion. Doing so will help us learn and feel. Even if we aren’t able to do everything we want every week, we may find different ways to bring Shabbat into our lives from week-to-week.

But why? What will we gain?

Our tradition provides two answers. The first comes to us from the Torah: Na’aseh v’nishma (We will do it and then we will understand it). Just as it is not possible to fully comprehend the meaning of love from a romance novel, so it is with Shabbat and souling. You have to do it to fully understand it.

The second answer, which seems rather circular, comes from Pirkei Avot: Schar mitzvah mitzvah   (The mitzvah is its own reward). Our tradition tells us that the days of redemption the Messiah will usher in are tied to the observance of Shabbat. Although I have no way of knowing if this is so, I do know that observing Shabbat can be a path to our own personal redemption.

This Shabbat, and every Shabbat, may your nefesh be renewed and restored. May your souling be fruitful.

Rabbi Jack P. Paskoff is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA, where he and his family have lived since 1993. He was ordained from the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1988.

Rabbi Jack P. Paskoff
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