The gift of an immersive Shabbat
January 23, 2018
When I started teaching my Journey Into Judaism class, I knew what experience I most wanted to give my students: an immersive Shabbat.
The texture of time shifts over the course of the day. There's the anticipatory energy of Friday night (welcoming Shabbat into our midst like an eagerly-anticipated guest), which is different from the settling-in of Shabbat morning, which is different from a leisurely Shabbes afternoon, which is different from the aching, yearning tenor of Shabbat mincha-time, which is different from havdalah as evening falls.
I wondered: would my students be willing to commit to spending an entire Shabbat together? We could begin with Friday night dinner around my table. Continue with Shabbat morning davenen at the synagogue. And then stay at shul for lunch, and spend the afternoon together, and close the day with havdalah. If we did it during the wintertime, havdalah would come relatively early in the day. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became.
So I floated the idea to my students, braced for the likelihood that the idea might not go far. We'd read Heschel's The Sabbath, and Heschel writes gloriously about Shabbat as a palace in time -- but it's a far cry between reading his elegant prose, and committing to giving up 25 hours of precious weekend time for an experience no one in the room had ever actually had before. And even if they were potentially interested in the idea, what were the odds of managing to get seven household schedules to align? To my delight, every one of my students agreed that this was worth trying to do.
We met in my condo on a Friday night. I set as beautiful a Shabbes table as I know how, with the embroidered white tablecloth given to me by Russian friends many years ago, and my usual Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup and challah cover. I added a vase of tulips, a sign of yearned-for spring. When everyone arrived we sang Shalom Aleichem to welcome the angels of Shabbat. We blessed candles and wine, bread and the children. (To my great delight, my son asked why there were two challot -- usually we have only one, since we're a small household -- so I got to teach about the double portion of manna that fell on Shabbat!)
The kids ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and watched favorite cartoons, and played games and with the cat. The adults ate soup and quiche, and drank wine, and talked and laughed and enjoyed one another's company. Sometimes our conversation was silly and sometimes it was serious. Over the course of dinner, conversation topics around the table ranged from funny kid stories to talk about God and spiritual practice. We ate ice cream with raspberries. We closed the meal with brich rachamana. I went upstairs to put my son to bed, and by the time I came down my dishwasher was running merrily and my kitchen was clean.
On Shabbat morning we regrouped for morning services, along with the other folks who came to shul. We feasted on a gorgeous, leisurely potluck lunch, with spacious time for relaxing and even enjoying dessert. I taught a class on God, which began with harvesting the room's questions about God, and continued with conversation about R' Brent Spodek's beautiful sermon I (don't) believe in God, and about different names of / faces of God (which ones resonate for us, and which ones don't, and why), and learning about the four worlds and how the God we think about may be different from the God to whom we yearn to relate.
Maggid David Arfa taught a beautiful class on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and environmentalist Rachel Carson and wonder. He brought a variety of short texts (from Rabbi Heschel, and from the tradition writ large -- I especially loved the one from R' Moshe Cordovero about how even a stone contains divinity.) And then we looked closely at a Rachel Carson article and an excerpt from Heschel's work and talked about cultivating awe as a core quality of spiritual practice, and whether awe is enough or whether it's meant to call us into action and relationship, and about what brings us closer to feelings of awe and wonder.
Two of my congregants led a session on different forms of Jewish contemplative practice. One of the practices they offered was a guided meditation that began by urging us to give ourselves the gift of this time during which we can release ourselves from the perceived obligations to "do" things, and instead simply be. Afterward we talked about how that, right there, is the essence of Shabbat. The shift from doing to being (and having that be "enough," rather than the constant striving to accomplish and produce) is what makes Shabbat radical, what makes it meaningful, what makes it a transformative spiritual practice in itself.
As the light of the afternoon waned, I led a session on eit ratzon / time of yearning, featuring niggunim and poetry and teachings about the special emotional and spiritual qualities of the end of Shabbat. I shared teachings about how God's yearning for us and for relationship with us preceded the act of creation itself -- and since creation (tradition teaches) began at sundown preceding the first day, Shabbat afternoon is the time when we and God may most deeply feel our yearning for each other. We sang. I read poems. We spoke about the things we wanted to carry with us from this special day. And then we made havdalah.
My students thanked me afterwards for the gift of a full Shabbat. I don't know whether they understand the extent to which their participation was a gift for me. I know what a whole Shabbat can feel like -- the way time liquefies and changes, the way the heart and soul soften and open -- but most of the time I don't get to live into that experience. Most of the time I don't get the luxury of a full Shabbat, a whole Shabbat that stretches mindfully from sundown to sundown. And most of the time I don't get to have the experience of immersing in a full Shabbat with others who are open to how the flow of Shabbes can open the heart.
I'm intensely grateful to my students and my congregants for their willingness to take the plunge and give themselves over to Shabbat from start to finish... and I'm delighted that people are already starting to brainstorm about how we can do it again! Unlike our other holidays, Shabbat is a transformative experience open to us every single week. I hope this will turn out to be not the only immersive Shabbaton to take place at my shul, but rather merely the first... and that those who so generously gave themselves over to the experience will come back to do it again, and bring others along with them for the ride next time.