One of my favorite Hasidic tales is about the wandering brothers, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk and Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli. The two brothers were often found among the people teaching, guiding, listening, and schmoozing. Once they were traveling with a group of vagabonds when the entire group was accused of theft and thrown into jail. As the time of the afternoon service, Minha, approached Rabbi Elimelech stood up and began to prepare himself for prayer. Rabbi Zushe reminded his brother that since the cell was dirty and smelly it was forbidden for him to pray there. Devastated, Rabbi Elimelech sat down and cried. His brother asked him why he was crying, and Rabbi Elimelech shared that it was because he could not pray. With a smile on his face Rabbi Zushe said, “Don’t you know that the same God who commanded you to pray, also commanded you not to pray when the room is unfit for prayer? When you are not praying in this smelly room, you are connecting with God. It may not be the exact connection you had imagined but if you really want the divine connection, you would be happy that God has given you the opportunity to obey God’s law at this time, no matter what it is.” With this reminder Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zushe, like all good Hasidic masters, started to dance from the joy of performing the mitzvah of not praying!
A dear friend of mine sent this story at the beginning of the pandemic, when it was a new phenomenon to find ourselves davening at home on Shabbat morning no longer able to join in transcendent song and prayer with our community, or celebrate the joys of Shabbat through bagels, rainbow cookies, and scotch at kiddush. It was the moment when we all paused and went into lockdown to stop the spread. We paused to ensure continuation. And while the pause has lasted longer than we anticipated, we still find ourselves not doing in order to do; we find ourselves needing to confine in order to become whole again.
Our Rabbis notice the same thing about the pause of Shabbat.
וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃
On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.
We pray these words in our Amidah and while we hold our glass of wine for Kiddush every Friday night. But what does it mean to say that on the seventh day God finished the work? Didn’t God create the world in six days, finishing all the work on the sixth day, and then resting on day seven? Rashi, the 11th-century French bible commentator, answers this question by sharing that rest itself was something that needed to be created. Rest was an active part of creation and this rest was more than just the simple act of non exertion, it was the final act of creation. Pausing, and resting is just as active a part of creation as the creation of the world and all living beings.
As we continue our lives in a paused state, eager as we watch frontline workers and those who are most vulnerable get vaccinated, with vacation and the new year approaching, I want us all to remember that like Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha, our inaction is the mitzvah we need to be doing right now. When we choose not to travel, painfully decide to spend another celebration away from family, or another weekend outside of our beautiful sanctuary, we are acting by not acting. By continuing to wait we are saving lives. May we be inspired to see how our silence amplifies the sound, how Shabbat is not separate from, but rather is the essence of creation, and how our longing is actually the vehicle to the connection we thirst for each day.