The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and
On havdalah

Welcome your extra soul, and irrigate the thirsty world

Small-water-features-pouring-urnOur practice of Shabbat restores primordial wholeness to the cosmos. It has the capacity to irrigate the thirsty world. Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors.

So teaches Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program. (I first shared these teachings here back in 2008.)

Our practice of Shabbat restores wholeness to the cosmos. That is one chutzpahdik assertion. That there is brokenness in the world (in all of the worlds) is beyond doubt. But to suggest that we can repair that brokenness through celebrating Shabbat? Holy wow. And yet this is what our mystics teach: that when we enter into Shabbat wholly, we bring healing to God.

What does it mean to say that "Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors"? Perhaps this: God experiences brokenness and separation, because we, God's creation, experience brokenness and separation. But on Shabbat, we create wholeness in ourselves -- and in so doing, we create wholeness inside God. Another way to frame it is through kabbalistic language: when we observe Shabbat, we enable God's transcendence (distant, far-off, high-up, infinite, inconceivable) and God's immanence (embodied, here with us, as near as the beating of our own hearts, relational, accessible) to unite.

And that is why when we experience Shabbat -- celebrate Shabbat, "make" Shabbat, enter into Shabbat -- we open a spigot of blessing to irrigate the thirsty world. Every blessing has the capacity to turn such a spigot, and Shabbat is the blessing of all blessings. Think of all of the sorrow, the distance, the brokenness, the spiritual and emotional thirst in the world. And then recognize that when we open ourselves to Shabbat, and allow Shabbat to work in and through us, we can become channels for the irrigation which would soothe that thirst. It is the active participation of our hearts and souls, experiencing the mitzvah of Shabbat, which unite God far above and God deep within. When that happens, blessing flows.

1389194539_b9e31c1b6dSome of that blessing flows directly into us. On Shabbat, tradition tells us, each of us receives a neshama yeteirah, an "extra soul." It stays with us until sundown on Saturday, when it returns to God. (This is one explanation for why we breathe fragrant spices during havdalah -- like smelling salts, they're meant to revive us from that soul's departure.) That extra soul is part of who we are, but during the week it's distant. We have two "levels" of soul (actually by some metrics we have four or five, but for now, I'm just talking about two) -- a "lower" soul which enlivens the body, and a "higher" soul which resides with the Mystery we call God. On Shabbat, those two unite. The reality of who we are is joined with the potential of all that we might be.

The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches that Shabbat is equal to all of the other mitzvot put together, and that if just once every Jew in the world truly observed Shabbat together, moshiach would promptly arrive. The teaching raises some questions: what would it mean for all of us to observe Shabbat at the same time? How do we define "us" in a modern, post-triumphalist paradigm? How do we define "observed Shabbat"? For that matter, what would it mean for moshiach to come? But I understand that piece of Talmudic wisdom in this way:  if we truly experience the day of Shabbat, we can experience a taste of the messianic era. 

Of course, in order for that to happen, we have to make the time to enter into Shabbat. To stop doing and simply be.

We have to be willing to let Shabbat change us.

We have to be paying attention.

Shabbat, and that extra soul, arrive whether or not we notice. But if we can be mindful tonight as sundown falls -- how might the windows of our hearts be opened? With the eyes of that new soul, what might we see?