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How the Rhythms of Shabbat Sustain Me

How the Rhythms of Shabbat Sustain Me

woman with a yellow lab dog on a dock at sunset

A congregant asked me recently how I am managing. She meant both the circumstances of my life – single parent, working one job and about to start a second – and our national circumstances, as the new administration makes decisions that deeply distress me. What I really understood her to be asking was how I sustain myself during difficult times.

One of my answers is Shabbat.

Every week, we retell the creation story: for six days God labored creating the world, and on the seventh day God rested and was ensouled. We too can be ensouled, can experience an enlivening of our deepest selves, when we turn away from the world of work for 25 hours.

In some ways, the most sustaining Shabbatot are those I'm able to spend on retreat and/or with beloved chevre (rabbinic colleague-friends) because at those times I am able to truly set the world aside. There’s no laundry or bills to ignore.

At those times, I'm usually not leading davenen (prayer), and I can relax into the skilled hands of my colleagues, whom I can trust to facilitate a spiritual journey through the liturgy. (If I am leading, I'm usually co-leading, which is its own kind of partnered dance and which gives me good “juice.”)

At those times, I can sink into the rhythms of Shabbat in community with others who are attuned to those rhythms, from the high-spirited joy of welcoming the Sabbath bride to the full celebration of Shabbat morning to the poignant yearning of Shabbat afternoon as we prepare to bid farewell to our weekly “taste of the world to come.”

But even Shabbatot when I am at home, “on duty” as rabbi and as mom, can be sustaining for me.

My Shabbat practices are sometimes idiosyncratic, and have shifted over the years, but here's one on which I am firm: I do not pay bills on Shabbat. If I open a bill on Friday afternoon and don't pay it by sundown, it waits on the desk until Sunday. It will still be there when Shabbat is over, and I need a day of respite from worrying about finances.

I also don't read the news on Shabbat. I give myself the gift of being able to look away from news media and political discourse for a day. This is good for me, maybe especially now. Taking a day away from my own fury at the brokenness of our world strengthens me for the week to come.

In his book Jewish With Feeling, co-written with Joel Segel, Reb Zalman, z”l (of blessed memory), wrote:

Save up for Shabbos those activities that pamper your soul. Here I would take a more lenient approach toward certain activities that traditional halakhah forbids, as long as they are done in the spirit of Shabbos. If you enjoy gardening for its own sake, rather than regard it as a chore you'd just as soon delegate to someone else; if you're enjoying spending time with your plants rather than working on a crop with which to feed your family, then gardening is a Shabbosdik activity for you. If you're a computer programmer by trade but a potter at heart, and if setting aside some Shabbos time each week would allow you to enjoy sitting down at the potter's wheel, then pottery is a Shabbosdik activity for you.

We might swear off the telephone during our Shabbos celebration – nothing can intrude on a Shabbos like a telemarketing call! – but have a special signal for family and friends (or simply use caller ID). A friend of mine used to have a telephone date on Shabbos afternoon with a woman he was engaged to, who lived in another city, and the first thing they'd discuss was their thoughts on the Torah portion of the week. The telephone becomes a sacred instrument when it allows us to do things like this.

Sometimes on Shabbat I cook a new recipe, something I've been wanting to try but haven't found time for. The traditional interpretations of the categories of “work” in which one does not engage on Shabbat would prohibit cooking on this day when we seek not to create change in the world but to find the gifts in what already is, but I've found that cooking something new can be restorative for me.

Sometimes on Shabbat I immerse in poetry – whether writing or tinkering with my own poems, or the poems of others in which I can just luxuriate. Polishing the poems in Texts to the Holy, my collection of love poems to the Beloved, feels especially Shabbesdik to me these days – but the simple fact of engaging with poetry can enliven my Shabbat.

Singing in harmony, when I can manage it, is an extra-special Shabbat treat. I'm an alto and some of my sweetest memories of the last many years of my life are of singing in harmony with others. When we are singing Jewish liturgy or psalms or Hebrew songs, that’s even more true, but any singing at all can enrich the sense of connection that I look to Shabbat to help me access.

At the end of Shabbat, I make Havdalah. Sometimes that's bittersweet – I can be reluctant to let go of the extra sense of connection with my soul and my Source that Shabbat can provide – but I know that my Shabbat time will have strengthened my readiness to face the coming week... and I know it will come again, thank God, in six short days.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011. She is the author of 70 Faces (Phoenicia, 2011), a collection of Torah poems, and serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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