Yom Kippur, 5774

Temple Sinai, Reno, NV

One transformational experience I had which led me to become a rabbi happened when I was 15. I was singing the Bach B Minor Mass with an international choir at Dachau Concentration Camp in Southern Germany. The conductor’s sister had been beaten to death there for serving as a French spy in WWII. I was the only young person in the choir. In fact, my voice hadn’t changed yet so I was singing the solo La Damuste movement, written for an alto voice. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of her death there was a multi-faith event; between each movement of Bach’s B Minor Mass, another faith leader lit a candle and led the audience in a prayer from their religious tradition. At the last moment the rabbi slated for the event couldn’t be there. The conductor asked me to light the Jewish candle and recite a Jewish prayer. At the time the Shma was the only prayer I knew well enough to recite from memory. I chanted it to the crowd of about five hundred, mostly Germans. They chanted it back to me. In that single experience, my Jewish identity was sealed. Wow, I thought. This Jewish thing is not just another label, sometimes hyphenated with something else to describe myself. This matters. I will always be Jewish in other people’s eyes. I might as well embrace it through my own. And so it began. For me, attending New England boarding schools where even the Jewish students were barely distinguishable from the dominant, WASPy New Englad culture, my interest in Jewish heritage and culture deepened. In college, my Hillel rabbi asked me as a freshman to lead High Holy Day Services. “Both days of Rosh Hashanah?” I asked. Like, “there’s more than one day?” In my house growing up, Shabbat was mostly Friday nights and centered around Shabbat dinner. My parents did not belong to a brick and mortar synagogue. But we celebrated all the Jewish holidays in community. It wasn’t until college that I experienced the beauty of a full, 25-hour Shabbat, beginning with song and prayer and ending with Havdalah, the ritual that marks the separation Shabbat and the secular week.

If the Shma is the prayer on our lips as we lie down and as we rise up in the morning, the book-ends of each day, Shabbat is the cornerstone of our lives, what the whole week leads up to. Judaism works wherever we are because we don’t need any one place to practice it. All we need is the cycles of our calendar, the cycles of time.

On this great holy day of Yom Kippur, which is called Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat, we reaffirm the cycles of Jewish time and our lives which are interwoven with it. We remember that while Yom Kippur may be the holiest day of the year, Shabbat is our most important holiday, which happens every week. According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.”  (The Sabbath). Shabbat is the heartbeat of Jewish time.

For those of you who were here on Rosh Hashanah evening, you know I spoke about the history and evolution of the Reform movement. I challenged each of you to define who you are as Reform Jews, not by what you don’t do, but by what you actively do. Reform Judaism is not serving us if it becomes an excuse to get rid of practices that take effort or that sometimes separate us from our non-Jewish friends and culture. Shabbat is something that many of us fear will isolate us too much, and yet in the coming year I want to challenge us all to develop a more extensive and meaningful Shabbat practice—as individuals and as a community. There are two questions you may have at this point. One is why. And the other is how.

First, the why.

I recommend a deeper Shabbat practice because our world makes us need it. In a market-driven culture, increasingly driven by technology, opportunities for meaningful face to face time in community are becoming rarer and more valuable and important. In a recent article in the NY Times, the author Simone Weil was quoted as saying, “attention is the rarest form of generosity.” The quality of our attention interacting with others face to face is incomparable to texting or email. Shabbat is not only a time to celebrate community. It is a time to turn off the gadgets that, while useful in our busy lives, do little to lift us up from the loneliness of modern life.

The second reason is our culture of consumerism and commerce. Advertisements and media are constantly telling us of a million more things we need, that we don’t have. Having a weekly reminder that we are complete and have everything we need and we have the permission to take a break from acquiring new things—is priceless in our world. Heschel writes that 6 days a week we live in commodity time—time itself is treated as money. One day a week we can change our relationship with time. We can be present and find contentment in it rather than using it to achieve other ends. We need this break from commodity time, a day that all the racing and purchasing and driving around is for. That is Shabbat.

Now the how.

Here is my vision for what a fuller, intentional Shabbat at Temple Sinai would look like:

Shabbat comes and we gather for Kabbalat Shabbat, the prayer service that welcomes and sanctifies the beginning of Shabbos. Through prayer, song and meditation in community, we release the past week and rejoice in the presence of God, community and Shabbat herself. Then we go home to have Shabbat dinner or enjoy Shabbat dinner in community in our social hall. The next morning, maybe we sleep in and, depending on the Shabbat, either join in a nature hike with song or attend a morning study session or prayer service at the synagogue. For special events, we have Shabbat lunch together at the synagogue or in other weeks, we go home and spend quality time with family and friends. We make the day time Kiddush, singing that beautiful melody. V’shameru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat. How many of us actually do this? We bless two challot again, we eat delicious leftovers from the night before. Finally, in the later afternoon families come back to the Temple. The kids go to Hebrew school, while the parents engage in adult-learning. For the last hour, parents join their children for Whole Family learning. We conclude with havdalah. Wishing each other a good week. We have so many communities of learning here at Sinai. Why not schedule them at overlapping times on Shabbat and intentionally mix them as well, to cultivate community and relationships l’dor v’dor, between and among the generations.

I know you all think I’m crazy for saying this. I know about the soccer practice and the skiing on Saturdays. I want to be skiing regularly also—and I will be; on Monday’s. On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves how we can be different and how we can return to a life in sync with Jewish time. I know this is hard. Any change we take on that requires a big shift and a different way to conceive of our week and even the synagogue calendar can be uncomfortable. You don’t have to start keeping Shabbat in a stringent, Orthodox way to make it meaningful. It does not have to be all or nothing. Also, I should add, my wife Nadya and I didn’t grow up keeping Shabbat. It’s a shift we chose to make at different points in our lives, and trust me, once you do it, you are so grateful and people envy you for being able to protect that time. Still, for this year, only seeds of this will happen. Religious school is still on Sundays this year. In fact, the first day is a week from Sunday, September 22. If you haven’t enrolled your children yet, this is the last week to please submit your forms; please do that. We will start slow, and provide a couple family retreats over Shabbat to experience a full Shabbat in community together. The community comes first. But this year, you may try making some boundaries around Shabbat in your personal life. Try NOT checking email and only using technology for real conversations, not logistics. Try NOT spending money unless it’s to enjoy quality time with yourself and others. Spend attentive time with your kids or with a friend. Take walks. Like any practice, try it for at least 3 months before you rule it in or out.

A few years back, Reboot, a Jewish non-profit engaging secular Jews with Jewish ideas, came up with something called the National Day of Unplugging and a Sabbath Manifesto. The idea was for Jews on Shabbat and Christians on Sunday to unplug from technology one day a week and plug into quality time. Once a year people would make a point of doing it across the world and share the experience afterward—on Facebook and Twitter. The 10 simple principles of the Sabbath Manifesto are:

  1. Avoid Technology
  2. Connect with Loved Ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get Outside.
  5. Avoid Commerce.
  6. Light Candles.
  7. Drink Wine.
  8. Eat Bread.
  9. Find Silence.
  10. Give Back.

I want to encourage all Tempe Sinai members to incorporate these 10 principles into your Saturday’s every week. Whether you do them in community or on your own. And for us at Temple Sinai to provide contexts to incorporate each of these principles and what they represent into the rhythm of our community, what we offer and who we are.

A fuller Shabbat is something we cannot talk too much about. It needs to be experienced to be understood. Shabbat is a time when we can experience deep insights together and regularly. Remember Heschel’s teaching: “What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass.” When I sang at Dachau when I was 15, it was not the place of the concentration camp that stuck with me. It was the people, my interaction with them, it was the music, and it was the experience of Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, of unity and spiritual transcendence. That transcendence in spiritual community does not have to be left for isolated experiences once in a blue moon. We can weave it into the fabric of our lives every week. Because we are Jewish and we have Shabbat. She is ours to embrace every week of our lives. Tigmeru chatimah tov; may you be sealed for a good year. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Bair