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Toward Shabbat: Vayeshev

My brother used to work in retail, which meant that after enjoying our family Thanksgiving meal he would have to prepare for the retail version of battle, Black Friday. Instead of pajamas, he slept in his work uniform. He would pull himself out of bed in the middle of the night and make his way to the store, where he was greeted by customers lined up around the corner—some with chairs and food, others with tents and sleeping bags—everyone ready to pounce on the irresistible Black Friday deals that awaited them and eager for the joy they anticipated their new items would bring into their lives.

 אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ

Who is wealthy? Those who are happy with their portion. 

This well-known teaching from Ben Azzai in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers, is seemingly obvious—and yet, most of us spend our lives trying to grasp and actualize this kind of wealth. We live in a consumerist society that constantly reminds us that we don’t have enough, that we need the latest version of each product, and that more is better. Today, out of all days of the year, we are reminded just how challenging it is to feel satisfied with our lot.

Which is why it is so fitting that Black Friday always ends with the start of Shabbat. The juxtaposition of Black Friday and Shabbat reminds us just how radical the concept of Shabbat is in our lives today. Shabbat is a gift from God that comes each week to tell us that we have everything that we need; it is a weekly glimpse of what a complete world could look like. On Shabbat we are forced to stop and see all that we have and to challenge ourselves to be truly שָּׂמֵחים בְּחֶלְקנו, happy with our portion.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches about the audacity of Shabbat in his classic spiritual work, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man:

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

This realm of time is Shabbat. Shabbat, as Heschel so elegantly states, is countercultural. It is a time to be present and generous, and to live with the rhythm of the world around us. Shabbat is the antidote to our obsession with acquisition; it is the balance to our constant sense of needing more.

We see this clearly in the variations of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, that we recite on Shabbat. Unlike the rest of the week, during which we make bakashot (petitions), on Shabbat we omit these requests. The Amidah is the peak of every prayer service and, like any well-organized writing, it is composed of a beginning, middle, and end. In nearly every Amidah we pray, the first three blessings are an expression of our praise (shevah), and the last three blessings channel our gratitude (hoda’a). Yet the middle section varies. During the week, this section is made up of bakashot—pleas for our basic needs such as freedom and food—whereas on Shabbat and holidays, this section is replaced with a long blessing that focuses on the sanctity of the day. On Shabbat, even in our formal conversations with God, we recognize all that we are blessed with and refrain from asking God for more. Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to feel fulfilled with all of our possessions and satisfied with our status as is.

Growing up, when Black Friday finally came to a merciful end, my brother would come home exhausted and ready to welcome in the wholeness of Shabbat with my family. Together we would sing the words of Psalm 92, the Psalm that officials begins Shabbat:

כִּ֤י שִׂמַּחְתַּ֣נִי יְהֹוָ֣ה בְּפעֳלֶ֑ךָ בְּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֖י יָדֶ֣יךָ אֲרַנֵּֽן׃

You gladdened me by Your deeds, Adonai; I shout for joy at Your handiwork.

This week, as we move away from Black Friday into Shabbat, may the refuge of this sacred realm of time bring us closer to truly feeling שָּׂמֵחים בְּחֶלְקנו—happy with our lot and gladdened by God’s wondrous deeds.