E-mail: shlomo@shlomosdrash.com
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Parshat Ki Tissa 5767: One Particular Harbor

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I have a real fixation.

For a very busy portion, I can’t seem to stop writing on one topic, but then again I’m not alone. After two weeks with not much action, there's a lot of story this time. Moses receives the last of the commandments on Sinai, then proceeds down the mountain, where he meets up Joshua, who thinks there's fighting in the camp. It turns out the people are worshipping a golden calf. Both Moses and God get upset, then Moses tries to save the people by telling God he'd look pretty bad in the eyes of the Egyptians if he kills everyone. The people repent, Moses goes back up to get another set of ten tablets, since he broke the first set. Moses asks to sees God's face, but only gets to see his back, sort of. God inscribes another set of tablets, and reiterates several commandments. After this second time, Moses keeps his face covered, unless he was in the Mishkan.

Our portion mentions one particular mitzvah not just once, but twice. At the very end of the first ascent on Sinai, we read

31:12. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 13. Speak you also to the people of Israel, saying, Truly my Sabbaths you shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that you may know that I am the Lord that does sanctify you. 14. You shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy to you; every one who defiles it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work in it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. 16. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant. 17. It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.

After the golden calf, Moses ascends Sinai once again, and we read:

34:21. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing and in harvest you shall rest.

As many know, Exodus 31:15-17 has made its way into the Shabbat liturgy as a song sung in Hebrew V’shamru. There are many melodies for this, yet I once did something rather strange and put this passage to the melody for Jimmy Buffet’s famous drinking song Margaritaville, changing it into a new song Shabbosville.  But that’s not the only Jimmy Buffet song that resonates with me about Shabbat and describes this place called Shabbosville:

I know I don't get there often enough
But God knows I surely try
It's a magic kind of medicine
That no doctor could prescribe

…there's this one particular harbor
So far but yet so near
Where I see the days as they fade away
And finally disappear

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath describes the seventh day as an island in time (Heschel, 15). Other religions have their monument in space, the shrine of this, the cathedral of that. The cathedral of other religions celebrates space, with vaulting ceilings and decorative architectural elements. But Jews have a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time, using an architecture of time (Heschel, 8) For six days we spend our lives in a secular world of space. But on the seventh we change our view to a world of time, a world where the senses appreciate every moment.  Our cathedral is Shabbat as a time. (ibid.)  As Heschel describes:

 Unlike the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath is not dedicated exclusively to spiritual goals. It is a day of the soul as well as the body; comfort and pleasure are an integral part of the Sabbath observance...To observe is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again the majesty of holiness in time "a day of rest a day of freedom" a day which is like "a lord and king of all other days" a lord and king in the commonwealth of time.

The first time I read The Sabbath, I was struck by Heschel’s image of an island in time. In my mind, the Sabbath is not a cathedral as much as a lazy quiet harbor on a tropical island with some really good fish restaurants and beautiful red sunsets. It’s a place where I kick back and do nothing that has to do with work or anything else. Often I sit watching the sunsets, or the harbor, sipping coffee and painting portraits of all the beautiful women who walk by. Since I visited it last year, when I see Shabbosville in my mind it looks a lot like Kona, Hawaii.

Of course Kona is about a ten (with a stopover in Honolulu fourteen) hour flight from where I’m writing this in Chicago. There is snow falling out of the seamless grey skies for the umpteenth time this winter.  This place, Shabbosville, is only in my mind, but it is there through my practice.  I stop working and try to relax. It is my tradition to go out to eat and have a wonderful meal on Friday night, painting those beautiful women not as they walk by on the boardwalk or beach but from photographs. I light candles at the first opportunity on Friday. Rather early on Saturday morning I sit with a cup of coffee and reflect on the week. Saturday afternoon is the traditional Shabbos schluff, doing recreational reading or a little more artwork. I keep the TV, Computer, and iPod off, and listen and see sounds that are already there. I may not be as observant as some, yet I carve out Shabbat as a special time as a time to va-yinafash, to re-soul myself.

There is one other aspect of Shabbat observance as well of course, and that is going to services. About ten years ago, I began to attend Erev Shabbat services regularly, and being in a prayer community was a wonderful experience, one I extended into my dietary practices, my Shabbat observance, and to my study of Torah in earnest. Given the situations they were in, the congregation only had two Fridays a month. Eventually due to some things I tried we ended up with three Fridays a month. For quite a long time, I even took the Shabbosville metaphor one more step: instead of the traditional Lurianic Kabbalah  advocacy of white for Shabbat, I wore brightly colored Hawaiian Shirts to services. But that was all I did in one month, and it was wonderful. I would eventually switch to another congregation and there too due to their less than permanent situation I would go to services only a few Fridays a month.  

This all changed a year and a half ago in my latest prayer community. It was a larger well-established Reform synagogue, though known for its tendency towards innovation since its inception. Here were both Friday and Saturday services, and in keeping with the halakah, I began to attend both every week. It too has been a wonderful and holy experience, one where I celebrated not just one but two aspects of Shabbat in worship in two very different minyans, and followed mitzvot even more than before, particularly a more regular reading of Torah. Yet as I wrote back in Yitro this year, I have been overwhelmed. Many weeks even when attending services, and doing all that stuff that was to get me to Shabbosville, I never made it there: I got lost somewhere at the security line at terminal H-K of O’Hare Airport and my plane left without me.

All this came to mind shortly after I wrote Parshat Yitro when I learned of an initiative to make Erev Shabbat more family friendly starting in March. One critical change was the synagogue changed services from 8:00 to 6:30. At first, I was angry that in order to attend services it would now be impossible to have that good dinner. The bayside fish restaurant on the tropical Island had to be replaced by the strip mall McDonald's in order to make 6:30 services. Alternately, I could go to dinner later, and wait and hour or so to get into a good restaurant. Yet as I thought about this I realized something that I hadn’t thought about, something that made me rather uncomfortable. Maybe it is not the dinner that needs to come out of my Erev Shabbat observance but the Service itself. As I thought about this I realized how much stress there is to trying to get to services at a synagogue so far from both my apartment and my work every week. I realized that over that last month or so, I found it very difficult to even keep my eyes open at Friday services. What I realized is that the practices of the halakah and mitzvot had overruled the mitzvah of stopping and resting. I had ended up not observing Shabbat properly because I did too much on Shabbat – I was not in Shabbosville, nor did I even feel it holy.

So starting last week, I stopped going to Friday services, and emphasized my morning Shabbat minyan more in my practice as my communal practice. I changed my Fridays to enjoy that fish dinner. While I do drive in the mornings, like many unable to get to services I pray at home now, from a Friday night liturgy I created a few years ago. Last Shabbat, despite a snowstorm, that was rather fun, and I felt better than I had in a while.

Yet I feel guilty about not being at services every time I can. To be honest I struggle with this change of practice, yet realize from a physical standpoint, it is necessary: running around to any synagogue would result in the same stress.  But there is that idea, one even strongly underlined in Heschel’s own works, that it is the deeds itself that is important not how comfortable they make me feel. I still feel I should be doing more.

Yet there is a key word, even found in the word Shabbat itself. It is the word stop. Shabbat is the place in Time where we practice no-doing, we refrain from doing. The rabbis actually made a list of thirty nine prohibitions to make this clear. Even the positive mitzvot of Shabbat really should be done with an intention and energy that I seem not to have lately. So I continue to struggle, knowing I should go more often, yet also knowing to observe Shabbat fully, To be in Shabbosville I need to relax a little. I am like the man so busy getting all his work done over e-mail and cell phone on vacation, he forgets the vacation. All too often I don’t feel holy on Shabbat from all the running around.

Like many of these personal reflections I post here, I feel many of us are like this, too busy to just stop and rest and enjoy one day a week. We need that Island in Time; we need that change in mental Latitude to have a change in Attitude. It is not just for our physical well being but for that deep connection to God through observance of the mitzvot.

As the chorus for Shabbosville I put this well.

Resting away again in Shabbosville
Taking off the last day of the week
Some people claim that I’m just lazy today
But I know, its Torah I keep.   

We may all not think of Shabbat as a tropical vacation. There are many metaphors that one can use. But the important thing that needs to be done is the resting.

So may you all find a wonderful holy rest on Shabbat. 

Note: Last year I started a web page www.shlomosdrash.com/shabbosville.html dedicated to Shabbosville. It’s still up, complete with the song, though I’ll admit I haven’t had much time to maintain and expand it. However, one part of that project which I still want to do for anyone interested is post people’s visions of Shabbat and their observance. If you are interested, e-mail me at shlomo@shlomosdrash.com.  

Note #2: Since I got it out so late I’m leaving the Esther  e-book offer up for one more week. Go to http://shlomosdrash.blogspot.com/2007/03/hag-sameach-whole-megilah-e-book.html for more information.