Shabbat Atzmaut 5782
There is a bit of a problem at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Leviticus 19:3 “You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep my Sabbaths, I the Eternal am your God”.
These are two very important commandments — honouring the parents and keeping Shabbat.
But they are also very different. One honours the parents as part of the family life: it is a natural inclination of the human soul. While keeping Shabbat is not instinctive, it is not automatic: one must be educated and learn what Shabbat is and how to keep it.
These commandments are not related to each other. They are about different dimensions of human life, yet they are somehow stuffed together in the same verse. Why? What’s going on? Is there a shortage of space? Was there a word limit to observe by the Almighty, Moses, or whoever wrote the Torah?
I have found an interesting explanation in the Sfas Emet, a commentary by Yehudah Alter, a Hasidic master who lived in the 19th century.
We show respect to our parents in many ways, one of which is particularly meaningful. We do not sit in the chair of our parents. It is actually a mitzvah, a religious commandment, and a natural inclination. Not take the seat of your parents, Do not sit in their place.
I am sure that if you have had a family Seder, and have been blessed by the presence of parents and grandparents, one of the main concerns was: “where does Granma / Grandpa sit?” And not for a minute do you want them to raise and leave their seat.
This is a way to show respect to our parents. When our parents are not around, we may take their chairs or sit on their armchairs. But when we are in the room, we give them the place of honour.
And on Shabbat, we do the same with God. We give God the place of honour. I should say we should — because Judaism is about ideals, it’s a lifestyle we strive to keep. But yes, even if you do not believe in God, Shabbat is the day for the family; it is when we try not to be busy and in a hurry as we are during the week. It is a time set apart for the family, ourselves, and especially for God.
On Shabbat, we give God the place of honour. To my Christian friends, God is a father; I always tell them that for us Jews, God is more like a grandparent. On Shabbat -think about this- you can imagine God as Grandpa or, why not Grandma, seated on the place of honour at the Seder table.
The Sfas Emet teaches that on Shabbat, we give God the place of honour as we do with our grandparents. It is a beautiful insight and a beautiful interpretation of that verse -Lev 19:3- which includes these two commandments. Now we understand why and how they are related.
I find this teaching incredibly profound. The guiding principle of Shabbat indeed is: let it go. Do not take the lead. Let God drive things, let God do the work, and let God be busy. Today is, for you, the day of rest. In the ancient world, Shabbat was an enigma for all the civilisations the Jews were in touch with.
To the Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians, this idea of a weekly day of rest was incomprehensible. If you were born in one of these civilisations. Either you were free, and every day of the week was a day of rest for you. Or you were a slave and then had no rest days (only Jews allowed the slaves a day for rest). The egalitarianism of Shabbat -and of the Jewish religion- was a mystery and a constant source of irritation for many non-Jewish civilisations.
And now let me ask you a question. This whole stuff, letting God do the job once a week while human beings work the other days of the week…. how can we be sure that it’s possible? That it is doable? That we can build a working, modern society which includes this principle -let God work for one day a week- as a possibility open to everyone
And the answer is: Israel. Israel is a State that has Shabbat as the official day of rest. It also allows everyone to keep Shabbat as per the Jewish tradition.
Not that it’s easy. We all know that some human activities and professions require a workforce 7 days a week: the health system, the police, the military… Not to mention those Jews and non-Jews for which keeping Shabbat is not a priority and who have the full right not to be hurt by other people’s observance. Which does not always happen. Indeed creating a society where the observance of Shabbat is the norm… it’s a challenge. But Israel is the only place where this challenge can take place.
Today is Shabbat Atzmaut. Yom ha Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day will be in a few days. There are many reasons to be a Zionist — one of which has been powerfully reminded to us last week on Yom ha Shoah. In my opinion, the lesson to learn from the Shoah is that we Jews need a State and an Army. Because after two thousand years of wandering and persecutions, we deserve a place to be safe and a Country to take refuge. This is so obvious that I am always surprised it has to be repeated.
But that is not enough. Israel is not only a place for us to take refuge. Israel is a Jewish State. A State whose legislation is inspired by Jewish law and whose culture is Jewish culture. Israel is the living proof that Judaism is not an outdated superstition and that Jewish law is not for a distant future, for a utopia.
There is an extraordinarily moving cartoon, that every year circulates on social media around Yom haShoah.
It is true.
We won the war against the Nazis. The barbarian project to annihilate the Jewish people, to cancel Jews and Judaism from the face of the Earth, had been defeated. The Jewish people survived -as that little kid showed off with his presence, life, smiles, and questions.
But there’s more. To that little kid, Judaism is not only Grandpa’s faith, the religion his parents believe, or what he learns at Cheder. For that little kid and for all of us, Judaism is also the culture, the laws, the custom, the immaterial constitution of one Country, Israel. It is there to welcome us in times of crisis. Still, it is there to take up the challenge to build a society based upon these noble principles: “respect your ancestors and keep my Shabbats”.
And honestly, I think that that Country is doing a good job, six days a week. The other day, God is in charge
Am Yisrael Chai.
[Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 29 Nisan 5782-30 April 2022]