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The Shabbat revolution: a movement of unity, peace and connection

Challah-baking in Sydney, Australia, with the Shabbat Project in 2014. Credit: The Shabbat Project.
Challah-baking in Sydney, Australia, with the Shabbat Project in 2014. Credit: The Shabbat Project.

By Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein/JNS.org

In a world that has experienced an inordinate amount of destruction in recent months, it might be difficult to appreciate—or even think of—creation.

Hurricanes wreaked havoc on Houston, South Florida and Puerto Rico, among other places. Earthquakes devastated Mexico. Las Vegas endured the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

In these times of crisis and pain, we have also witnessed some of mankind’s most admirable attributes: kindness, empathy, determination and unity. As disparate communities around the world banded together to assist the most vulnerable among us, I was reminded of how our Sages describe the ultimate state of unity “like one person with one heart.” We are brought together through external trauma, whether it be natural or man-made disasters.

Yet healing must be about more than unity. To survive and thrive daily, victims and volunteers alike—and those who fall into neither category—need to experience life’s simple, yet profound gifts. Most prominent among them are a sense of inner peace, and genuine human connection. There is nothing in our lives that better allows us to experience these gifts than Shabbat.

Peace and tranquility

Justice Louis Brandeis, using a phrase coined by Joseph Addison, the 17th century British poet, spoke of Shabbat as “stealing a day out of life to live”. This is the special spirit of Shabbat. On a day in which many of our routines are restricted—going to work, writing, cooking, driving cars, turning on lights and activating electrical appliances, among other things—we can discover that these restrictions are actually liberating; that it is the things we can’t do on Shabbat which free us up to do the things we can.

Rather than impeding our enjoyment or creating inconvenience, these regulations actually create the magic and inspiration of the Shabbat experience. Day in and day out, in order to get by in this world, we spend so little time actively connecting. The pace of modern life, and the tasks and responsibilities that consume our lives morning until evening, are an intrusion; they prevent us from real connections with our family and friends, with God, and with ourselves.

By giving us peace and tranquility, and diminishing the ever-present noise of the outside world, the restrictions of Shabbat liberate us. At the Shabbat dinner and lunch table, for example, no one has to answer the phone or rush off in the car somewhere. No one is distracted by the screens of information and entertainment that saturate the modern world. Or take the prohibition on driving, which frees us to genuinely connect as we walk together side by side, instead of talking into the car speakerphone or rearview mirror while we negotiate traffic.

It is the restrictions of Shabbat that afford us the opportunity to really live.

The power of human bonds

We live in a world that has become a constant feed of digital information. With marvels of modern technology at our fingertips at any given moment, we remain glued to our devices, and cling to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as if our lives depended on them.

But Malcolm Gladwell, one of today’s most influential thinkers, asserts that modern technology might not be the key ingredient to everyday success—or to transformative social revolutions. Yes, the “Arab Spring” upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the Arab world are widely believed to have been sparked by social media. In a 2010 article for The New Yorker, however, Gladwell examines episodes that illustrate a different narrative: the so-called “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova in 2009, and the student uprising in Iran a few months later. In a piece titled “Small Change – Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” he notes that the role of social media was negligible in both instances. Changing the world through social media alone, he argues, is unlikely because the ties between social media users are generally very weak.

Instead, real social change is achieved through the bonds that exist between friends and family. To illustrate this phenomenon, Gladwell looks at the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.—specifically at how the mass “sit-ins” at eating houses and other facilities reserved for whites mushroomed into a nationwide protest against segregation that changed the face of America.

The Shabbat Project

As it turns out, one of the world’s latest revolutions embodies the aforementioned core human values—unity, peace and tranquility, and real interpersonal connection. Since I introduced The Shabbat Project in 2013 in South Africa, this worldwide call for Jews to keep a single Shabbat has grown exponentially.

From Oct. 27-28, this year’s Shabbat Project drew more than 1 million participants across 1,416 cities and 97 countries. It has been nothing short of thrilling and deeply inspiring to watch this movement grow, as Jews come together across every conceivable divide—language, culture, ethnicity, geography and observance.

Fittingly, the unity of The Shabbat Project was on full display in the places that are currently most in need of an uplifting experience. Whether it was Houston, Las Vegas, Mexico City or other sites of recent traumatic events, Shabbat Project activities served as a refuge and a safe haven, as well as a platform to bring communities together in genuine moments of connectedness. The emphasis was not on destruction, but creation—or more precisely, on the day when God halted creation and commanded us to rest, and to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. In these turbulent times, we need Shabbat more than ever.

The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder of the International Shabbat Project, which took place in 1,416 cities around the world from Oct. 27-28, 2017.

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