Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein and the Lord of the universe should both receive the Nobel Prize. It is well known that the institution of Shabbat is one of the best inventions God ever came up with.
But it was Rabbi Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa, who brought Shabbat down to earth last week and inspired hundreds of thousands of mainly secular Jews, in Israel and abroad, to celebrate a conventional Shabbat, leaving their cars and mobiles at home and instead joining prayer sessions and Shabbat meals for the first time in their lives. This is an unprecedented revolution in modern Jewish life. The idea is nearly 6,000 years old, and it took one dedicated Jew to make it happen. A Nobel Prize is long overdue.
It is common knowledge that we all need a weekly rest. What is much less known is that the Jewish tradition believes such rest should not only consist of refraining from strenuous labor, but also from any kind of work that presents man as having dominion over the world. One day a week we are asked to return the world and all its potential to God and, instead of being creators, acknowledge that we are also creatures in God’s eyes – not much different from a flower, a leaf or a small bird. By refraining from cooking, writing, creating electricity, driving cars, flying airplanes, and other such activities, we learn that the world has already been created and will no doubt survive without us. As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in The Sabbath, “The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”
Shabbat is a day when we stop worshiping technology, money and power. Instead, we focus on our internal lives and our families – learning Torah, singing songs, and creating an inner palace of tranquility. Shabbat is holiness in time, when we allow for personal conversations with friends, reading a book, playing games with our children, and ungluing ourselves from the mobile, iPad and computer.
Shabbat means living in full liberty, which is paradoxically achieved by heeding prohibitions. We free ourselves from all sorts of activities that often disturb our internal balance.
What can be greater than abandoning the cell phone and suddenly discovering that we have a spouse and children? We find an island of stillness in a turbulent sea of worldliness.
Yet there is one law that, while rarely applicable in Israel and large Jewish communities around the world, really sums up the whole message of this remarkable day: the prohibition against carrying any object in the public domain, besides our clothing and jewelry. Today, many cities are surrounded by an eruv (a symbolic enclosure), which makes the city into a large private domain so as to permit people to carry some of their items for reasons of convenience.
But it is really this prohibition against carrying that captures the essence of the Shabbat rest, and it is a pity that its message has been nearly forgotten. What is the secret behind this law? The Buddha (c. 560-480 BCE) and Master Furong Daokai (12 century, China), both great Eastern philosophers, really hit the nail on the head when they made the following remarkable observation in Sutra on the Establishment of Mindfulness, or Satipatthana Sutta: “The green mountains are always walking... If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking.”
(I thank Prof. Yehudah Gellman of Jerusalem for bringing this to my attention.) What did they mean? There are two reasons for walking – one is to reach a destination, and the other is for the sake of strolling.
When someone walks to something, his goal is outside himself: he has to be at a business meeting, or needs to bring a parcel to a specific place.
But when a person takes a stroll, the walking itself is the goal. It is not a means but das ding an sich, the thing itself. Every step is its purpose. At such a moment, a human being is connected with his very being. He is walking with himself in peace and in complete harmony. He is carrying only himself.
Green mountains walk in the sense that they, in an existential way, stroll with themselves. They need not do anything but be mountains.
Nothing outside themselves disturbs them in being mountains.
They need not go anywhere; therefore they just stroll.
A man must know how to carry himself. He should know that his inner being is the goal of his life. It is his internal life that needs to spiritually and morally grow. His happiness depends not on outside circumstances but on his attitude toward those conditions. The rare and simple pleasure of being himself will compensate for all his misery. If he meets his family or friends, he will not want to own them as objects but to relate to them in a mode in which they stroll with him, accompanying him while spiritually growing. He realizes that being is becoming.
No longer is the goal of life about obtaining an object, or being somewhere for the sake of proving himself, achieving external goals, or making money. He refuses to be the slave of his own inventions, whether it is his car, computer, mobile or parcel. What he acquires on Shabbat is a way of life that brings the joy of tranquility or, as Spinoza calls it – sub specie aeternitatis – a perspective of eternity.
When the Jew is told not to carry in the public domain on Shabbat, he is essentially asked not to see his life goals in the public sphere, where life is about getting somewhere. While for livelihood one no doubt needs to go places, that activity remains a weekday endeavor, a means to something but never das ding an sich.
On Shabbat the Jew turns his outer mode into a being mode, and for one day a week he becomes a person who by just carrying himself, and nothing else, is able to deal with a world that has little knowledge of the soul’s needs. On Shabbat the Jew strolls even when he goes to synagogue. Only then will he realize how great he is and that nobody can make him inferior without his own consent.
In a world where we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, where we turn mysteries into dogmas and facts, ideas into a multitude of words and routine, the Jew is asked to surpass himself by being himself; he is summoned to discover another world.
Refraining from carrying is an act of protest against the shallowness of our world. And while today we are permitted to carry outside our homes if an eruv is in place, we should never forget the great symbolic meaning inherent in the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, which can advance us – both spiritually and morally – further than anything else.
Our society stands on the precipice, and one false step can plunge us into the abyss. We have, for the most part, become a civilization of notoriously unhappy people – lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive and dependent – people who are glad to kill time that they are trying so hard to save.
Shabbat is a day of truce in the midst of the human battle with the world. It teaches us that even pulling out a blade of grass is a breach of harmony, as is lighting a match.
And while we need to carry objects on weekdays, so as to physically survive, one day in the week we are taught that what really counts is our ability to carry our own selves.
Shabbat teaches us that the survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart.
The time has come for all of mankind to observe Shabbat. We need it badly. The Lord of the universe has told us to do so. And Rabbi Goldstein has delivered the goods. May he be blessed.