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Why Shabbes Matters… Especially Now

When we “went in” (started sheltering-in-place) for covid-19 in New York, I thought we were going in for a few weeks.  I’ve been more-in-than-out now for five months. 

I am a lay service leader for my congregation, and I typically co-lead one Kabbalat Shabbat each month.  Our little shul is a small but mighty group; a mixed mini-tude.  By March 13 (the first Shabbat of sheltering-in-place), we were ready — more or less — for Shabbat on zoom.  Our Rabbi led us that night, and the following week was my turn.  We have continued to pray Kabbalat Shabbat with Maariv on Zoom since then.  And like most communities, we’re preparing for Zoom-based high holidays now too. (By “we,” I mean our rabbi and rabbi emerita.)

It’s been quite an adjustment.  Although I have joked about buying a t-shirt that says, “you’re muted,” I have not done so yet.  We are working on making services as meaningful and uplifting as can be; we are working on looking into the camera while hitting the right chords on the ukulele; we are adjusting to hearing either one voice or a cacophony, never a harmony.  (By “we,” I mean me.)

As a group, we are finding we like seeing each other’s faces in our Brady Bunch array.  We visit before and after services.  A core group has started to do Havdalah every week, led mostly by me.  It’s a quick service but sometimes we watch a movie afterwards, or just talk. I wrote some new lyrics for a silly Shavua Tov song.  It’s to the tune of the Addams Family (snap, snap).

Associate professors work hard; we are the backbone of every university. In the pandemic, as we shifted to fully online instruction, I was working very hard.  Even without my commute, I felt the days were endless.  Sometimes I zoomed for too many hours in a row and the next day felt half dead.  My eyes hurt; my back hurt; my heart was breaking over and over. I was worried about so many things. The emails were endless and many of them were filled with bad news, confusing instructions, or repeated information.

So, I started a mini-observance of Shabbat.  I shut my work email just before we went into zoom for Kabbalat Shabbat and did not open it again until Sunday morning.  I closed it on my laptop and on my phone.  Just that one action, protecting myself from work for the duration of Shabbes, was a balm.  I took Saturday to relax.  Sometimes I went to Saturday morning Torah study; sometimes I took a walk; in July and August, I relaxed by the community pool, swam a little. I read, I napped. I rested.  

I did not go full-on shomer Shabbes in the classical sense.  I still used the internet and TV.  But after a few weeks, I found I did not want too much news or twitter on Shabbes either.  I did things that are officially on traditional halakha’s list of “work,” like writing.  But I did not make shopping lists, or to-do lists, or write letters to politicians.  I doodled.  I drew. I wrote songs.  I did things that fed me, even if they were officially not Shabbesdik.  They felt Shabbesdik to me.

Did I mention the professor part?  I did not mention the procrastination, though.  Suddenly, in August, I found myself up against a grading deadline.  I had to get the grades to a colleague by Sunday morning.  I could not let her down. As Friday sank into Friday night, I was not done.  I was not even close.  Waiting until after Havdalah would not be an option—there was too much to get through.  My all-nighter days are behind me.  I was looking at grading papers on Shabbat.  Well, I told myself, it’s not like I’m really a sabbath observer…I just have some sort of covid shabbes habit going on.  I’ve graded papers on Saturday before.  It’s not really a big deal.  Right?

It did feel like a big deal.  I was stuck in my chair all day, reading, checking, marking it down, trying to concentrate.  I got the grades done, and I did go to morning Torah class, but by the time Havdalah rolled around, I was realizing that I really missed out on my Shabbes rest. I really felt it.  By Tuesday, I was asking myself, when’s Shabbes already?  

That one weekend of needing to work on Saturday made me realize that my little Shabbat observance is a real thing. I turned off my email for Shabbes and it was the best click of the week.  It  turns out, I really need that rest every week.  Shabbes is a thing.  You should get some.  During the pandemic… and beyond.

 

 

Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz is an associate professor of Communication Disorders and a speech-language pathologist. She serves as a lay service leader and trustee at Temple Beth El of City Island, NY, also known as “your shul by the sea.”

Psalm 92 by Rabbi Ben Newman

 

This rendering of Psalm 92 was written by Rabbi Ben Newman. In his Kabbalat Shabbat siddur he notes that the psalm’s function is “[t]o inspire feelings of relaxed celebration and the joy of gathering in community for a break from our workaday week. Also to open the channels in our psyche to let creativity flow.”

His instructions are: “Take a deep breath. Listen to the music. Tap your foot to the rhythm. When you are ready, join the musicians in singing the song. Lose yourself in the music.”

This can be used for solo davenen (prayer) or in community. If you want to play along or share this with other musicians, the chords are Bm, F#, G, D, F# — and if you happen to know the first track of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, you’ll recognize the chord progression. 

Recorded at Shtiebel. If you can’t see the embedded audio, try visiting this post at its own URL: https://yourbayit.org/92-newman

 

 

תהילים צ”ב / Psalm 92: Relaxing into the Shabbat Vibe

A ballad, a Song, a ditty for shabbat.
An anthem, a chorale, some funky rock.

A hymn a chant, and a lullaby
As the shabbos day is drawing nigh

It is good to give thanks to Yah our God
To sing to your exalted name

How great are you works Adonai
How deep are your thoughts oh one on high

The righteous will blossom like a palm,
Grow like the cedar of Lebanon

Their gray hair shall be their crown
New and ripe their songs will sound.

Showing that Yah is constant
My rock the One who is no nonsense.

 

By Rabbi Ben Newman, with a hat-tip to Lin-Manuel Miranda for the chords.

Mah Nora HaMakom Hazeh – a chant for (digital) sacred space

One of the challenges of convening a group for prayer over Zoom is shifting gears into sacred space.

How can we sanctify the space where each of us is planted, knowing that as we shelter-in-place during the pandemic, our desks or dining tables or coffee tables serve purposes both secular and sacred? The table from which I’m joining the Zoom call might be the same table where I paid bills an hour ago, or folded laundry, or homeschooled my kid. How can we skillfully make that space feel holy when it’s time for prayer?

And how can we sanctify the placeless place of the Zoom room itself? A Zoom room doesn’t have the comfort or majesty or familiarity of a synagogue. We may associate Zoom spaces with committee meetings and other secular activities, not the sacred purpose of prayer. And a Zoom room isn’t a “place,” exactly, any more than the internet is a “place.” How can we make that “place” holy and fitting to hold a community gathering in prayer?

At a recent digital Shabbaton convened to explore these questions, we used this chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere for both of these purposes. We sang it as a call-and-response. (Participants were muted, but the two of us sang the back-and-forth, inviting the community to sing along with the response half of the chant.) We sang it explicitly to sanctify the physical place from which each of us was calling in and to sanctify the Zoom space.

We used this chant as our melodic and thematic throughline. We sang it at the start of services, during the d’var Torah (The Mishkan’s Next Digital R/Evolution, on this very theme), and again to close the service and seal our time together. The call-and-response linked us together across nine different states and two different countries. And the words reminded us that where we are is holy — where we are in the world and in our homes and in our bodies, and where we are in the space of the internet and our hearts’ interconnection.

 

מה נורא המקום הזה/ Mah nora hamakom hazeh

How awesome is this body!

How awesome is this place!

How awesome is this journey

Through time and space.

 

(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, try going to this post directly at yourbayit.org/makom/.)

 

Chant by Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere. Her albums include Wild Earth Shebrew, Halleluyah All Night, Torah Tantrika and This Bliss; find her music at her website.

 

 

Post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus.