I always attempt to write my weekly comments on the forthcoming parsha of the week as well as this type of “On Judaism” article on Saturday night or early Sunday morning. It is then that I am still under the influence of Shabbat and I find that to be calming and stimulating at one and the same time. The influence of Shabbat is never limited to its twenty-five hours visit with us. If it is truly appreciated and valued then its aura stretches over the entire week until the next Shabbat arrives.
This is especially important in our very crowded world, full of noise, great and small decisions and enormous frustrations. The ability to think about issues and events, about life itself and our individual roles in family, society and the world generally, let alone to be able to think clearly about these issues, is severely hampered by our daily distractions and mundane but necessary chores.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in his immortal work, Mesillat Yesharim, begins his book by asking the basic question of life – What is the basic obligation and purpose of living? Why are we here and what are we supposed to do with our existence on earth? Though logically speaking, this question should haunt us every waking moment of our lives, the truth is that we are usually so busy making up our grocery list that we never really have the ability to concentrate on answering this basic question of life. It is only on Shabbat when we are at least physically freed from life’s pernicious demands that such a question can be contemplated and addressed. That is why it is so important that we all should attempt to make the Shabbat influence stretch over as much of the workday week as possible.
Over all of my years of writing, I have found that I am most able to write satisfactorily (at least in my opinion) the closer I am, time wise, to Shabbat. With the distractions and problems of the week not yet upon me, though I know they are not long in coming, I can approach my writing obligations refreshed and much calmer than I would if I wrote on Wednesday or Thursday. Shabbat is a shower for my brain, a cleansing of my inner being, an opportunity for spiritual growth (physical as well, as the Shabbat meals in our home can attest to) and at least some minimal contemplation on important personal issues.
Writing regularly is a cruel taskmaster. Without the aid of my Shabbat experience and its influence it would undoubtedly be an even more formidable task. I realize that Shabbat does not improve my prose or perfect my grammar, but it does help me think about what to write and what my true opinions are on matters that concern me and perhaps others as well. I think that this is another possible interpretation for what the rabbis called the neshama yeteira – the additional soul – that inhabits our being on Shabbat. The additional soul is really our true internal self yearning to be expressed in our thoughts and behavior which oftentimes is stifled within us by the demands of the routine and schedule of everyday living.
We are not all necessarily writers, though a great writer once wrote that there is a great book residing within each of us awaiting exposure and redemption. But we can each attempt to carry the benevolent and holy influence of the Shabbat with us during the days of the work week. There were Jews who named their children Shabbat or Shabtai in order to remind them of the Shabbat all of the days of their lives. One of the greatest compliments that could be paid to a Jew in previous generations was to be called by others a “Shabbat Jew.” It not only meant that the person was a Shabbat observer, something which the overwhelming majority of Jews then were, but that the person carried the Shabbat within him or her always, even in the midst of the pressures of the workday week.
Being a “Shabbat Jew” had less to do with personal scholarship and public leadership roles and much more to do with inner serenity, satisfaction with one’s lot in life, a spirit of optimism and faith that transcended all of the pettiness, anger and frustrations of everyday living. Driving an automobile “under the influence” is dangerous and criminal. Living one’s life under the influence of the holy Shabbat truly gives one a taste of eternity and immortality.