The world is more divided than it has been at any time in recent history. Across the globe, deep social fissures have been exposed with communities fractured along political, social and religious lines. These divisions are exacerbated by social media, which instead of bringing people together is only entrenching our differences and pulling us further apart.
This year’s Shabbat Project is happening this week when many of these divisions will come to a head. It is the week of the U.S. elections—a culmination of one of the most bitter, divisive and exhausting presidential races in the history of democracy. The elections have divided society in the most profound ways and not just in the United States. More than about policy and governing ability, choosing who to vote for or support has become a statement of one’s values and very identity.
The timing of the Shabbat Project also coincides with another ideological flashpoint. In Israel, it is the week that we mark the 25th commemoration of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, which has become symbolic of the deep divisions within Israeli society.
The problem of divisiveness goes beyond these particular events to a more significant societal malaise. The tone and content of public discourse have become toxic. Rage abounds. Vicious personal attacks have become the norm. Sneering contempt and snide putdowns have uprooted the art of debate. We seem to have lost the crucial ability to listen—to hear and understand the other side.
As a society, we’re struggling to maintain minimum levels of decency and respect when discussing emotive subjects. Somehow, we need to find a way to talk to each other differently and to debate the complex issues that divide us in a way that is humble and respectful, not angry and derisive.
In a world of cynicism and discord, Shabbat is a day of spirituality and love.
In short, we’re in need of a gentler world. That is the message of “Flowers for Shabbat”—a new initiative of the Shabbat Project. The concept is pretty simple. We’ve created a platform for people to send a beautiful bouquet of flowers to the people who need them most at this time: COVID-19 sufferers; doctors and health-care workers battling it out on the frontlines; volunteer first responders putting themselves in harm’s way; elderly people who have had to cut themselves off from the world for months at a time; and many others.
Flowers are not a practical gift. There’s no real function or utility; they simply convey a message of love and appreciation, of care and compassion. Flowers are also colorful and beautiful. The symbolism is clear. Beauty itself can be defined as the harmonious integration of disparate, and often opposite, parts. “Flowers for Shabbat” is a call for all of us to come together across our differences to create a kinder, gentler, more empathetic world. A more beautiful world.
This idea goes to the heart of the Jewish tradition. The book of Proverbs describes the Torah as “ways of pleasantness, and all of her paths are those of peace.”
Pleasantness and peace are the values we really need at this time. And Shabbat, perhaps more than any other Torah commandment, epitomizes them. There is, of course, the traditional greeting we extend on this day, “Shabbat Shalom.” But the association runs deeper.
We know that the candles we light to usher in Shabbat were instituted by the rabbis of the Talmud to foster shalom bayit, literally “peace in the home.” Shabbat candles preserve peace in a very practical way by illuminating the space we live in so that the occupants of the house don’t stumble around and collide with each other.
In short, we’re in need of a gentler world.
More profoundly, the candles symbolize the light of love and attention. Their light allows us to savor the experience of being together on Shabbat; the candles create an atmosphere of tranquillity, and when people are able to see each other’s faces, they can really connect. The pressures of the week place demands on our time and divert our attention from the people closest to us. The light of the candles helps us re-establish that intimate connection.
Shabbat gives us the time and space to truly see the whole person, beyond which presidential candidate they support or which ideological label we attach to them, and relate to those around us with empathy and compassion, generosity and kindness, love and closeness. In a world of fragmentation, Shabbat is a day of connection. In a world of cynicism and discord, Shabbat is a day of spirituality and love.
So now, at this time when we are reaching for a way forward—for a way to engage with each other with respect and decency, with dignity and peace—the global Shabbat Project provides the Jewish world with an opportunity to do just that. It represents the chance to find each other across the walls we’ve built up; to enlarge our conception of each other and relinquish the unkind words and sentiments we’ve used to diminish one another.
Flowers. Candles. Shabbat. A simple formula for returning peace and compassion to the world.
Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and founder of the international Shabbat Project, to be held this year from Nov. 6-7.