Last week I did something that felt very strange: I counseled three people to break Shabbat.
I've been teaching an adult education class this year that I've called "Journey Into Judaism." We're all on a journey into authentic spiritual life, into the continuing unfolding of who we are and who we're called to become. Some of the students in my class are Jewish and seeking deeper connection with their traditions. Others enrolled because they're partnered with Jews. Others enrolled because they felt a pull toward becoming Jewish and wanted to learn more.
This Friday, on the cusp of the Shabbat that will lead into Shavuot, three of my students will take the plunge into Judaism both literally and metaphorically. After spending some time with the beit din (the rabbinic court of three who will officially preside over their transition), they'll immerse in a mikvah and then emerge to a new chapter of their spiritual lives. Last Friday was the final Shabbat before their immersion, so -- following a very old custom -- I told them it's customary for them to break Shabbes.
Shabbat isn't something that just "happens." It requires a combination of intention and action; otherwise, it's just plain old Friday-night-and-Saturday. In common Jewish parlance, we "make" Shabbat (or Shabbes -- "Shabbat" is the modern Hebrew pronunciation, "Shabbes" is a more old-fashioned Yiddishized pronunciation, but they're the same word.) We make Shabbat when we enter into holy time mindfully. Through blessing candles and the fruit of the vine and bread, we sanctify time.
And as for "breaking" Shabbat, that means different things in different communities. Most members of my synagogue community don't "keep" Shabbat in the traditional forms. But my students and I have talked a great deal about Shabbat consciousness and holy time, and about different ways of honoring Shabbat, and about what Shabbat can look like. We've held two immersive Shabbatonim for the purpose of giving them full, deep, rich, sweet experiences of Shabbat from start to finish.
And last week I told them to break Shabbes. On purpose.
In some communities, non-Jews are not permitted to observe Shabbat, and prospective Jews-by-choice are instructed to secretly break Shabbat each week before their immersion, because the covenant of Shabbat is between God and the Jewish people and they aren't yet part of that group. I don't hold that thick a line between "us" and "them" -- I am happy to share the sweetness of Shabbes with seekers of all stripes -- but it is true that once my students immerse, Shabbat will be "theirs" in a different way.
In some communities, prospective Jews-by-choice are encouraged to break Shabbat on purpose right before their immersion, to see what it would feel like to do so. If they've grown accustomed to candles and challah and wine, what would it feel like to forgo those things? If they've grown accustomed to seeking a heartspace and headspace that's apart from weekday consciousness, what would it feel like to intentionally open the bills on a Saturday afternoon and shatter that sense of separateness and peace?
The old paradigm of rabbinic authority was often top-down. But that's not the paradigm that's embraced in the community I serve. We aspire to practice an informed wrestling with the tradition, making conscious choices about how our practice evolves. I shared with my students the custom of breaking Shabbat before their immersion... and all of them engaged with it thoughtfully, and made their own decisions about how to honor it and what they were, and weren't, willing to forgo.
And I couldn't be more thrilled. Because in learning the custom, and pondering it, and checking in with their own discernment about their spiritual needs and their evolving Jewish practice, they unconsciously lived out exactly the kind of Judaism that is my hope and my prayer for them in days and years to come. They showed me that Shabbat means something to them, and that Jewish practice means something to them, and that they have taken permission to engage with the tradition on their own terms.
A few days ago I spoke with Rabbi David, who will sit on the beit din, about the logistics of how the day will go. "I want their experience to be beautiful," I fretted -- feeling anxiety about the weather, and about the setting, and about all the things I can't control about how Friday will unfold. Rabbi David gently reminded me that I can't "give them" a perfect experience no matter how hard I try. My job is to lead them up the mountain. What they experience at the mountaintop is in God's hands, not mine.
I needed to be reminded of that, especially on the cusp of Shavuot -- another liminal space-and-time, another long-anticipated moment, another time when I want so deeply to be able to give those whom I serve a renewed connection with Torah and with our traditions and with our Source. What we experience on the mountaintop isn't up to me. That's not in my hands. My job is to lead people safely along the path, and to trust the Kadosh Baruch Hu -- the flow of holiness and spirit that we name as God.
The universe handed me another reminder this week that I'm truly not in control: the storm and tornadoes that tore through the Hudson Valley. The summer camp that was supposed to be our weekend retreat location remains without power. As a result, our retreat has been canceled. Thankfully, we've found an alternative way to hold the beit din: at a regional mikveh, with celebration (potluck supper, Kabbalat Shabbat, song and dance and joy) to follow at a local shul.
My students' doorway into Jewishness will not exactly take the shape I had intended or planned, but it will be their doorway -- and as a doorway, entered mindfully, it will be holy. This will still be a Shabbat for them unlike any other that has come before. It will still be the Shabbat after I surprised them with the instruction to break Shabbes... and the first Shabbat for them in the flow of Jewish national and spiritual identity, the first Shabbat of the rest of their new and renewing Jewish lives.
For my students, with endless gratitude.