I’m a college-town rabbi: Morgantown revolves around West Virginia University. The Hillel kids — the Jewish college students — teach in my Sunday school, they help with holiday programming, sometimes they shovel the walk or take recyclables to the pickup venue. They’re great kids, and it’s a privilege for an old guy like me to have this glimpse of tomorrow’s Jewry. A highlight of each semester is a Friday night service I run jointly with the WVU students. We call it “Schmooze with the Jewz.”
For our recent Schmooze, it was agreed that I would chant the prayers and the collegians would give the sermon. But when the appointed Friday rolled around, they texted me at 5 p.m. to ask if the synagogue has a printer. It seemed they were still writing their address. They arrived precisely at show time, and I had to ignore my congregation long enough to download the students’ speech to paper.
This week’s Torah portion tells us not to ignite a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3). Is an inkjet printer a “fire?” I leave that to the experts on Halachah. But the flare of my temper was licking the paint off the ceiling. Why do young people procrastinate? The date was set two months in advance. Would it have killed them to write the sermon a little earlier?
Of course, we got through the evening, and everyone loved it. My graying flock was thrilled with the energy and idealism of these new leaders, even though we started a bit late. And after all, if the Bible says not to light a fire on the Sabbath, the Mishnah (Shabbat 2:7) says you must light a fire on the brink of the Sabbath. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting in the dark, which is not conducive to calling the Sabbath a delight (Isaiah 58:13).
Oneg, delight, does not just mean a cookie after services. It means anything that makes Shabbat special: special food, special songs, special decorations, special guests. Kiddush, sanctification, does not just mean wine after services. It means remembering the creation, since God rested on the seventh day. It means remembering the liberation from Egypt, since slaves never have a day of rest. To me, it also means remembering a hundred generations of our ancestors who kept the Sabbath, strictly or leniently, in wealth or in hardship, but with joy. Laughter, togetherness, family, friends. Isn’t that the point?
Shabbat is a window through the centuries: an interval when the partitions between past, present and future are dissolved, and we dwell in eternity. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it “a palace in time,” more sacred to us than any physical space, even the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. On Friday night, though we may not kindle the stove, in L’chah Dodi we sing ki va orech, “your light has come”; kumi ori, “rise and shine.” The Sabbath bride is supposed to smolder as she enters the room. Nothing chilly about her.
In this secular age, in this backwoods town, Torah’s a tough sell. You’ll meet a few Jews, and they’ll insist they’re proud to be Jewish: but all those complicated rules leave them cold. A viable Judaism needs to accentuate the positive. In Pirkei Avot (1:5), the rabbinic maxims, we read: “Let your house be open wide,” to invite God in. All the more on this equinoctial Shabbat, the entry to the Passover season: our special haftorah tells us to throw open the gates of the sanctuary on holy days (Ezekiel 46:1). We don’t believe in an evil one who must be kept out.
As a liberal rabbi, I grapple endlessly with the tension between ancient laws and modern practice. Jacob wrestles the angel and is renamed Israel, “struggles with God” (Genesis 32:25-29), a paradigm for us all. In “Reform school” — Hebrew Union College — I learned that we are in dialogue with our heritage: neither imprisoned by it nor shrugging it off, but always re-engaging it. Preferably with enthusiasm. Boredom never made anyone a better Jew.
The spark of anger and contention ought not to crackle on the Sabbath, although this grumpy rabbi is still working on it. The flame we should tend is our love for a Parent who has stood by us through history’s calamitous ups and downs. The blaze we should build is our passion for a God who gives us commandments to bring us near, not to push us away. The Hillel kids in Morgantown preached loyalty to our traditions, our values, our conscience. That’s what should burn brightest of all on Shabbat. For as the Talmud (B’rachot 57b) says, the Sabbath is a foretaste of the World to Come.
We are at the end of the book of Exodus. There’s something we recite when we conclude any of the five books of Moses. When we wrap up a segment of the Pentateuch we say, Chazak chazak v’nit’chazzek: Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. Torah is supposed to make us strong, and not just strong as individuals, but strong as a community. Chazak chazak v’nit’chazzek.
Rabbi Joe Hample is spiritual leader of Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va.