We are living through times of pain and fear. During these trials and challenges we need to find strength. We can draw strength and fortitude from each other. Jewish unity is more important than ever. “All Jews are responsible for one another,” our sages say. We care for each other, and from that we draw real comfort and strength.
And we can also draw strength from Shabbat, our old and trusted friend – through the ages it has always been there for us. Since God gave us the awesome gift of Shabbat at the birth of our people, Shabbat has accompanied us through all our journeys across continents and historical eras, from Sinai to the remarkable birth of the State of Israel, which actually occurred on a Friday night.
In his book The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner described the scene of a small group of soldiers from the Hagana, who were out on the battlefield that night as the historic news filtered through: “David Ben-Gurion declared independence this afternoon in Tel Aviv. The Jewish State comes into being at midnight. There was a dead silence. Even the air seemed to be holding its breath. Midnight was minutes away... Every breast filled with exultation as we pumped hands and embraced, and roared the national anthem at the tops of our voices...
“‘Let’s drink to that,’ said Elisha with delight, breaking open the bottle of wine and filling a tin mug to the brim. ‘A l’chayim to our new state.’ “‘Wait!’” shouted a hassid whom everybody knew as Nussen der Chazzan – a cantor by calling, and a most diligent volunteer digger from Mea She’arim, the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem. ‘It’s Shabbos. Kiddush first.’ “Our crowd gathered around him in a hush, as Nussen der Chazzan clasped the mug and, in a sweet cantorial tone began to chant “Yom hashishi,” the blessing for the sanctification of the Sabbath day.
“As Nussen’s sacred verses floated off to a higher place of Sabbath bliss his voice swelled, ululated, and trilled into the night, octave upon octave, his eyes closed, his cup stretched out and up. And as he concluded the final consecration – ‘Blessed art thou O Lord who has hallowed the Sabbath’ – he rose on tiptoe, his arm stiffened, and rocking back and forth, voice trembling with emotion, he added the triumphantly exulted festival blessing to commemorate this first day of independence: ‘Shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehigianu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.”
Shabbat was there on the battlefields when the State of Israel was born; it infused that singular event with its unique spiritual aura, as it has infused, over the centuries, many of our most precious and significant moments.
The fact that Shabbat is still around – and thriving – is a miracle. The ancient, primitive world – a world of camels, pyramids and dusty roads, with no electricity, cars, airplanes or Internet – into which Shabbat was introduced by God 3,328 years ago resembles little that we know today. And yet, in today’s world of cellphones, space travel and keyhole surgery, Shabbat is still a vibrant part of Jewish life.
Indeed, Shabbat has withstood the test of time. Shabbat has sustained generations of Jews through every imaginable (and unimaginable) circumstance – in poverty or wealth, acceptance or hatred , through hardship or ease, in ancient and modern times, on every continent and in every era of history.
And so, we are not alone in the world.
We are part of something much greater and larger: the Jewish people and Shabbat. When we sit around our Shabbat table, we connect with one another and we also connect with all the generations of Jews who have kept Shabbat for thousands of years in so many different places and circumstances.
We relive the great Shabbatot of history – the first Shabbat of creation, the first Shabbat the Jewish people spent in the desert, when the double portion of manna fell from heaven just before, and the Shabbat when the Torah was given. We think about all these events as though they are with us today, because the holiness of time means that we experience time not as something fixed and linear, monotonously following one minute after another, but as something living and dynamic.
Shabbat is our badge of honor of Jewish heritage, giving us the blessing of belonging and strength. And so, as Jewish communities in more than 550 cities in 65 countries around the world prepare to welcome in The Shabbat Project together, we have the opportunity to draw on the well-springs of Jewish unity and heritage.
The power of the message of The Shabbat Project – “Keeping it Together” – is rooted in the connections that Jews feel for each other and for Shabbat, which has been our pillar of strength and inspiration, accompanying us throughout our journeys in history, amidst a fluctuating world.
On Shabbat, Jewish history and destiny come together. Past, present and future blend. It is about our past history and also about our vision for the future. When Jews lit candles in the death trains or recited Kiddush on the battlefields of Israeli independence, they felt the comfort of being connected to thousands of years of Jewish history and destiny. And so, as we face the challenges of our times we do so with strength, fortitude and faith. In the merit of our unity and in the merit of Shabbat may the verse be fulfilled: “May God grant His people strength, may He bless his people with peace.”
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.