Shabbat Vacation


Shabbat Vacation


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Even Better Than Club Med

By Louis Flancbaum

Several friends have mentioned to me that they regularly vacation at Club Med, where they have a fantastic time returning home feeling relaxed, refreshed and rejuvenated. There were particular elements that appeared to have made their experiences worthwhile. The first component was the sense of tranquility they felt. By eliminating telephones, televisions and financial concerns (everything is paid for in advanced so one doesn't have to worry about such details), Club Med creates an environment in which to retreat from the world, completely relaxing, without external distractions or infringements. In addition, the scenery, weather, food and facilities are tremendous, simulating a paradise-like atmosphere that allowed my friends to reflect and contemplate life, and to get back in touch with themselves, their families, nature, God, or whatever. Lastly, the experience was enhanced by sharing it with other people, fulfilling the human need for socialization. I couldn't help but draw a parallel between their vacation tales and Jewish life.

The ingredients they raved about are critical to creating the ideal "escape" vacation, and are also deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. How does vacation in a tropical paradise have anything to do with Judaism? Jewishness is not expressed through the actual trip to Club Med, rather it is the underlying concept of Club Med that is authentically Jewish. Our tradition, long ago, realized that time, even before the era of cellular phones and instantaneous worldwide communication, is one of our most valuable commodities. Judaism has a built-in ideal "escape" experience - which occurs frequently and regularly, lasts long enough to accomplish its goal, yet is short enough to not be burdensome or require taking too much time off from work, and is relatively inexpensive so that everyone can participate. Short, sweet, recurring and cheap, this Jewish experience is Shabbat.

Shabbat is the dominant holiday in Judaism, occurring more often than any other. Its symbolism is extensive and multidimensional, providing meaning to individuals, families, and communities. Referring to the centrality of Shabbat within Jewish history and Jewish life, the writer, Ahad Ha'am , a secular Jew, wrote: "More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people".

God's role in Creation is memorialized each Shabbat-- the highlight, of the week. Traditionally, referred to as a day of rest, we rest on this day because God rested. But, Shabbat is not a day of "rest" or a day off in the conventional sense (God does not have to rest from fatigue as do humans), rather it is a time of abstinence from creative work. The Ten Commandments charges us to keep the Sabbath day holy (Exodus 20:8). The Torah and Talmud impose limits on our activities and boundaries in time on Shabbat, establishing a framework within which we can transform ourselves from physical beings, focused on achieving material success, into religious beings striving to attain a higher level of holiness and spirituality.

We escape to our personal Club Meds by suspending our weekday creative efforts to fulfill the mitzvah to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28), and return it to God's exclusive dominion for one day each week. From sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday night, God takes over. On Shabbat, only He is responsible for maintaining and preserving the world (obviously God is not resting by our standards), which is a reminder of the distinction between our respective roles in the universe by acknowledging God's preeminence.

Shabbat glorifies the centrality of "freedom" for all, "sons, daughters, slaves, servants, animals, and strangers" (Exodus 20:10), providing a respite from the mundane and secular tasks which preoccupy us during the week, liberating us in order to pursue holiness and spiritual renewal. It gives us the opportunity to say to one's job or boss "you don't own me", while removing us from the daily pressures of the world that surround and dominate us for six days each week in order to catch our breath. The equality of individuals is highlighted on Shabbat since all of us are commanded to "remember and observe" - master and servant, rich and poor, king and subject, man and beast. For this period of "sacred" time, we are just Jews, equal in every way before God, as it will be in the "world to come".

The Shabbat experience fosters growth on many levels. For individuals, it is a time for reflection, introspection and communing with oneself and God. For families, it is an oasis in time spent together, which in today's hectic society may be difficult to arrange, when they eat, converse, study, or simply relax and enjoy each other's company. Husbands and wives enjoy a special intimacy on Shabbat, and communal unity is encouraged by people convening in synagogues to pray and share kiddush and meals. The prayer service was deliberately constructed to promote communal involvement by requiring the presence of a minyan, a quorom of ten men, in order to recite various portions of the liturgy and read from the Torah. Communities build eruvim (symbolic enclosures of public spaces which then allow people to carry in the public domain on Shabbat) so that parents of young children can carry or wheel them in strollers to synagogue to participate. There is an incredible inner strength that each of us gains from knowing that, at this particular time, all of Israel shares a common purpose and is living out a collective destiny.

Many Shabbat rituals are imbued with historical and ethical symbolism. Since the destruction of the Temple, the home has became the central locus of holiness in Judaism. On Friday nights, the dinner table is transformed into an alter and all of the elements of the Shabbat experience, lighting candles, blessing the children, reciting kiddush, using two challot, the bread made special for the Shabbat, the shape of the challot, salting the challah, eating meat, grace after meals, and the singing of z'mirot, are reminiscent of some aspect of the Temple service. Other Shabbat activities, such as giving tzedakah (charity) before candle lighting, hachnasat orchim (inviting guests), covering the challot during kiddush, sponsoring kiddush in the synagogue, and learning Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), have ethical significance and help create an atmosphere conducive to spiritual development and the quest for personal perfection.

The Shabbat "vacation" experience is comprised of a vastly complex array of rituals, laws and customs designed to glorify God's majesty over the world, and to reinvigorate the relationships between individuals, families, communities, the Jewish People, with God and with each other. Shabbat offers us a taste of "world to come". It is a brief excursion into the Garden of Eden (or Club Med?) - a momentary escape to a paradise lost that will eventually be found again. On Shabbat, there are no external distractions: no cooking or cleaning, no telephones or pagers, no work or deadlines, no bills or shopping.. The laws (prohibitions) that have been instituted for Shabbat, which at first glance appear to be restrictive, are upon closer analysis liberating, freeing us from daily routines and obligations that enslave us during the remainder of the week, and allowing us to celebrate with ourselves, our families, our communities, and our God.

Thus, while both of these experiences offer the opportunity for spiritual renewal and growth, differences remain between the paradise of Club Med and that of Shabbat. For most of us, Club Med may come only once a year or perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. Shabbat, comes every week and is available to each one of us.

Louis Flancbaum is a physician and the author of an the upcoming book And You Shall Live By Them: Contemporary Jewish Medical Ethics (Mirakov Press) which will be coming out in the fall of 2000


from the May 2000 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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