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Toward Shabbat: Devarim

One of my favorite stories is the classic Buddhist story of two monks: a student and teacher who are walking in the forest, each having vowed never to touch a woman. They came upon a wide river where a woman was standing. She asked the monks to help her cross the river. The older of the two monks quickly walked over to the woman, lifted her up, and carried her to the other side of the river. The monks continued on their journey for three days, when finally the younger monk turned to his teacher and said, “I just don’t understand. We took a vow, how could you have touched that woman?!” His teacher smiled and said, “I carried her for 30 seconds, you have been carrying her for three days.”

In high school, I decided that I was going to become shomeret Shabbat, to keep Shabbat in a more traditional way. When I made this decision it was easy; I was on Ramah’s summer program in Israel and the program was designed for us to take a break on Shabbat. My friends were all near me, there were services on campus, and all meals were provided. When I arrived home, this decision felt more daunting and isolated. My first Shabbat at home was not easy. As I left the bathroom after brushing my teeth on Friday night on autopilot, I turned the light off. I was devastated! I couldn’t believe that I had already violated the laws I was so desperately trying to keep. For the rest of Shabbat, I held onto this feeling of disappointment. That first year, as Shabbat would approach I would always feel rigid: How and when was I going to make my next mistake? As the stars would emerge and Shabbat would leave us, I would feel a burden lifted off my shoulders. I no longer needed to tiptoe around in fear of doing something wrong.

Our sages teach us that we must enter Shabbat as if all our work has been completed. Just as God finished creating the world with the rest of Shabbat, so too we must act as if all our work is complete and enter Shabbat as a time of rest, renewal, and recharging. As the years have passed, my relationship with Shabbat has developed and rather than holding onto my mistakes, I have learned how to embrace Shabbat as a time to be present. With myself, the people around me, and the Divine. Shabbat has become one of my most influential teachers, teaching me how to let go, how to be in the moment, how to live with the unknown, and how to pretend as if just for 25 hours all my work is done. Over the years, Shabbat has taught me to smile and say “oops!” if I turn the light off on Friday night, just as the monk lifted the woman and put her down.

Letting go is hard. It is hard to pretend that all our work is done when deadlines are still hanging over us or to stop thinking about the ways we might mess up in the coming week. Yet this is the very blessing of Shabbat, it comes to remind us to be in the here and now, to be in tune with our bodies, our loved ones, and the natural world around us. As we wind down another week, I invite you to think about the things that you are holding onto this week. How can you gently place them down, even if just for a brief moment as you light the candles, or for the next 25 hours? May we each be blessed with a Shabbat of inner peace and the ability to be present with ourselves, our loved ones, and God.