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Rabbi Berk’s Erev Rosh Hashanah Late Service: Shabbat

Note Regarding the Difference between the Sermons for the Early and Late Services: Our Early Service is designed with children and families in mind and therefore includes a simplified version of the sermon delivered in the Late Service. You may read the sermon from the Early Service here.

By Rabbi Michael Berk

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at the bedside of someone about to leave this world who told me what they learned too late in life. Why is it that sometimes it takes a brush with death for us to learn important life lessons? A palliative care nurse recently wrote about the things people told her that they learned too late in life. Tops among them: working too hard, losing touch with friends and family, and not taking advantage of opportunities for happiness.

We can learn from these regrets what to work on now. As we welcome this New Year, I want to prevent you from discovering something too late in life to matter. It’s something Oliver Sacks learned shortly before he died this summer. I’m talking about Shabbat.

Sacks, the distinguished scientist, physician, and writer who riveted us with his writings as he struggled with and recently succumbed to cancer, rediscovered Shabbat towards the end. He wrote about it after visiting his observant family in Israel just a few months before he passed. His words are sad, to me, but maybe we can turn that around if we listen to the wisdom he learned as he lived in a space somewhere between this life and the next. He wrote:

“…now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

Most of us here today still have time to find the Shabbat peace of which he speaks without wondering if we will be alive the following Shabbat. Let’s pause and thank God for that. Now listen to what he wrote about that beautiful Shabbat he experienced with his Israeli family, who embraced him, and to his surprise, his gay partner: “The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with nostalgia and thoughts about this life.”

Growing up in the last half of the 20th century meant growing up during an extraordinary technological boom that was supposed to give us gadgets, machines, and devices to free us up for more leisure time. But we are now more than ever slaves to our devices, our work, our daily responsibilities, which we simply cannot escape. In some workplaces you’re criticized if you don’t answer an email quickly, even if it arrived after midnight. I bet some of you sitting here right now have cell phones that are still on; might want to check that. And I am pretty sure some of you have texted while sitting here tonight. I wonder if any of you have tweeted that you’re currently listening to the best sermon you ever heard…

I don’t think I could ever I convince you to deepen your Shabbat by telling you that you shouldn’t fire up your computer, play video games, check emails, because you need to rest from those things. And even if I said you all work too hard, you need to take time off – I don’t think that would win you over and that’s ok, because I think that misses the point.

Tonight, I want to shed a different light on why Shabbat should be important to us. We have awfully comfortable lives. What is it about Shabbat that might compel us to give up so many of the things that make us happy just to observe Shabbat?

First, God tells us how important Shabbat is by making Shabbat himself. After spending six hectic days creating things, God shifted gears on the seventh day. Most of us think it had something to do with God getting tired. Eric Fromm can straighten us out about that and in doing so get at the heart of Shabbat’s real point: Fromm wrote about God resting: “This is … the meaning of God’s rest—this rest is not necessary for God because He is tired, but it expresses the idea that great as creation is, greater and crowning creation is peace; God’s work is a condescension; He must “rest,” not because He is tired but because He is free and fully God only when He has ceased to work. So is [a person] fully [a human being] only when he does not work, when she is at peace with nature and with others…

Fromm is telling us that God wasn’t tired when Friday night rolled around; and the issue isn’t, are you tired. For us, kicking back on Saturday, binging on Netflix, isn’t work. No, the issue is: what are you; who are you? Our ultimate humanity isn’t expressed when we buy and sell and consume, but when we’re being. God rested from creating avocados and Jupiter, not because the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Creator of the Universe, was tired. But when God rested he was most fully God. It’s the art of letting go. When we rest on Shabbat we are most fully human.

The prophet Jeremiah understood this. That’s why he went to the city gates, the Wall Street of his time, to warn the people about conducting their business on Shabbat. And he thundered, “…this is what the Eternal says: Take heed for the sake of your souls, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day; …but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your ancestors.”

“Hishamru,” he said. Be very careful, for your soul is what’s at stake here. He warned them right in the heart of the business district that there’s more to a human being than buying and selling and consuming things. There’s more to you than that. You are a human being, made in God’s image; with a soul. You are more than the work you do and the material things you own.

Wow; how countercultural is that. America says your worth comes from your work; and we can tell all about your worth by the things you own. America extols the individual who works his tail off. It’s our form of machismo. I can’t tell you how many people boast to me about the enormous number of hours they work in a week, as though it’s a badge of honor. Judaism comes along and says that’s messed up. Judaism does not eschew the material things that bring us comfort and happiness. And Judaism certainly lauds work as the dignified expression of our being co-creators with God. But Judaism says we are not defined by our work; and our worth is not at all dependent on what we do to get our stuff or how much cool stuff we have. Shabbat is a break from the enslaving pursuit of happiness from acquiring and using material things. Instead, on Shabbat we pursue something entirely different, and of soaringly greater importance — nafshecha; our souls. Shabbat reminds you, you have a soul.

Shabbat is about taking care of our souls. What do our souls need on Shabbat? All our modern appliances and devices have given us a marvelous world at our finger tips. 24/7. They make us very happy. But, if happiness is all it’s so cracked up to be; how come so many people are wondering: is this all there is? Some of you remember the bumper sticker: Life is short then you die. That’s what Kohelet in the bible thought. He had everything in the world to make him happy, but he is the unhappiest person in the bible. We American Jews are a lot like him. We have lots of things to make us happy. But all that happiness from things doesn’t tell us something important: is there joy in your life? Which begs the question: What’s the difference between joy and happiness?

Aristotle said that happiness is the ultimate goal at which all humans aim. In the bible, happiness is the state of mind of an individual. Kohelet is the Bible’s expert in unhappiness. His book, Ecclisiastes, is a series of meditations on the pointlessness of life. After an exhaustive search for happiness, he realizes that the appetites we seek to fulfill to make us happy are insatiable. So happiness always leaves us wanting more. His conclusion: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to rejoice and do good while they live.” (3:12)

Kohelet found meaning in life not in happiness, but in joy — because joy lives not in thoughts of what tomorrow might bring, but in the grateful acceptance and celebration of today. Joy comes when you realize you really are alive. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, it comes from feeling grateful, “That you are living in God’s world, enjoying God’ blessings, eating the produce of His earth, watered by His rain, brought to fruition under His sun, breathing the air He breathed into us, living the life He renews in us each day.”

We do not know what tomorrow may bring; the world is a tough place, and life is full of struggle. But when we focus on what we have, allowing ourselves moments to dance, sing and give thanks, to be with good friends and family; when we do things for their own sake and not for any other reward, as we do on Shabbat, when we let go of our separateness and individuality, and join with family and friends at times like Shabbat — now that’s joy. That is no small part of what it is to be a Jew. No matter our reality, on Shabbat we are commanded to rejoice and enjoy friends and family, synagogue and food, music and conversation. We savor these things and are grateful for how they bless our lives. For that one day, we feel – dayenu. I do have enough.

We may have lots of cool stuff that make us feel happy, but they threaten to become our masters. Celebrating Shabbat binds us to our friends and family and our sacred community. You and I know that the pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to narcissism and indifference to the sufferings of others. Happiness is usually experienced alone. Joy never is. Joy connects us to others and to God. Joy is the ability to celebrate life as such, knowing that whatever tomorrow may bring, we are here today, under God’s heaven, in the universe He made, to which He has invited us as His guests. Shabbat is our invitation to find this kind of joy.

A month ago on two successive Shabbatot something magical happened right here at Beth Israel. On August 14th nearly 200 of you were at shabbes dinner in homes across San Diego Country. And the following week, nearly 500 of us gathered as a community at our 9th annual Shabbabaque. Every one of you knows that those meals tasted different than had you gathered with the same people somewhere else on a Tuesday night. What was the difference?

You know the answer: the warm glow of candles and the embrace of family and friends, the feeling of contentment, the relaxing of muscles and release of stress; songs, connecting deeply with those sharing the Kiddush and challah. It was the sweetness of Shabbat. And it was more than the food. It’s the people you met at the dinner and those you loved gathered around the table. Food tastes better when there’s a little Hebrew thrown in before eating it, Hebrew you may not understand but you know is expressing the gratitude you are feeling for the food and the people with whom you get to share it.

What a beautiful texture this kind of Shabbat gives our Judaism. Reform Judaism, if it is to maintain its strength and vitality, needs to recover Shabbat. Shabbat adds something we now know is crucial even for our liberal Judaism: touch and smell and song and laughter and people we care about; good food and great conversation, the sweetness of Torah and prayer. Challah and wine. When I grew up as a Reform Jew, Judaism was all in our heads and hardly involved our hearts. I went away to college and didn’t know Jews thank God for food before and after the meal.

When I attended my first traditional Shabbat meal, at the home of a friend whose father happened to be my professor, I felt like I had entered an alternate universe. A family that sang and prayed and talked about important things over a leisurely meal? A father who blessed and kissed his wife and children? That night my professor blessed me and kissed me on my forehead. It happened that earlier in the day I had taken the final examination in his class. Maybe that’s why I remember the blessing and the kiss; but I really think it’s because I have only one memory of my father kissing me; and none of his blessing me. Wouldn’t you like your children to remember your Sabbath blessing and kiss?

The Pew report tells us we are in trouble with our young people; that we risk losing our youth if we don’t give them a Judaism that’s more than great ideas about being a nice person They don’t need to find Aish Hatorah or a Kabbalah Center, or a Buddhist temple, to find a spiritual home, which so many of them seek. Nor do they need to live a spiritually empty life endlessly searching for happiness and never quite finding it.

So let me tell you what I’d like you to do. Experiment. Try Shabbat on. Commit to something for Shabbat in the months to come. Once a month: have a special dinner and combine it with coming to services. Participate in Shabbat SD on the Weekend of October 22-24. There will be lots to choose from: Community events frame the weekend, beginning with Challah making on Thursday and ending with Havdalah Saturday night. In between, let’s make Beth Israel the place to be. We’re starting Friday night with a joyous musical service followed by a dinner at which I want at least 300 people to attend. Shabbat morning and afternoon we welcome an important rabbi from Israel, Uri Regev, who will teach Torah in the morning and engage us after services at a luncheon. Also, sign up for the next 18 Tables, which will be December 4. Let’s fill at least 18 Tables. And earlier this evening at the Family Service I asked our youth leader to use their imagination to re-envision how they can make our Teen Shabbat experiences compelling and exciting experiences that bring our teens together and give them something they can’t get across the street at the mall.

This is what I’m hoping you will discover: what it’s like to be drenched in Shabbat. To spend at least part of that day eating a special meal, enjoying friends, family, community. To celebrate the joy of your existence for at least a few hours with a little challah, a few prayers, important conversations, some singing maybe. To let out a breath that feels like it comes from your soul as you experience a rest different from recovering from being tired; but rather, a contentment that for now, for a while, you can feel that your work is done, and you may, in good conscience, rest.

Let me ask you a question as I conclude: do you think it’s possible that at the end of your life you may regret working too hard? Not spending enough time with family? Spending too much time in front of the television and not enough time outside? If you’re honest, most of us will have some kind of regret like that.

But now let me ask this: do you think it possible that at the end of your life you might say: I wish I hadn’t gone to Shabbat services so much? I regret all the time I spent at Shabbat dinner with family and friends?

I seriously doubt it.


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