The Light of Shabbos and Shabbos without Lights
At a recent Shabbaton of the Nefesh-Yehudi organization, which does kiruv work on the major campuses in Israel, I attended a presentation on the meaning of Shabbos given by Rabbi Yaakov Estreicher, a dynamic young speaker. I was interested to see how he would describe Shabbos to secular students. But I had no expectation that I would personally go away with a new deher (approach) to Shabbos. I was wrong.
Rabbi Estreicher presented Shabbos as the key to experiencing life with joy, of rejoicing in one's portion. He noted how rare it is to meet someone overflowing with joy. If we asked someone how he was, and he responded enthusiastically by enumerating at great length everything there is to be grateful for, we would likely suspect him of having a screw loose or partaking of illicit stimulants.
But that is precisely what Shabbos allows us to do. On Shabbos, we refrain from all melachah – which, as Rabbi Estreicher explained at length, refers not to the expenditure of energy, but to creative activity – and are therefore forced to view the world as complete, and not in need of any further improvement. We learn to appreciate what we have.
Rabbi Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Shabbos 5) emphasizes this point. He writes that in the verse, "And Elokim saw es kol (all) that He had made and behold it was very good," kol does not refer to all the many things He had created, but is rather the language of completion, klila. Elokim saw how the entire creation fit together in one seamless whole, and that was the tov meod.
Thus in the blessing Yotzer Or during the week, we say, "ma rabu ma'asecha – how manifold are Your works," but on Shabbos, we say "ma gadlu ma'asecha – how great are Your works." "Manifold" refers to the multitude of infinite detail; "great" refers to the way in which all those details fit together in one perfect tapestry.
It is natural and proper that during the week, we should notice all that can be improved and needs to be done. That is part of what it means to be partners with Hashem in tikkun olam. But there also has to be a time when we cease thinking about all that is lacking and acting upon those thoughts, and instead contemplate the world as if were complete, without any further need of our creative input. Rav Hai Gaon instructs us to view ourselves on Shabbos like someone who has finished all the work of building a beautiful house, just as the world was complete in Hashem's eyes, "Va'yechal Elokim b'yom ha'svi'i.
The ability to stop trying to fix things, and to instead step back and appreciate all that we have been given and how perfectly apportioned it is to our present task in life is the source of the most profound joy. Rabbi Hutner notes the difference between the description of our approach to Shabbos – "ve'karata l'Shabbos oneg (You shall call Shabbos oneg) – and that of Yom Tov – "ve'samachta b'chagecha (You shall rejoice on your festival). The latter is expressed in terms of concrete acts of simcha – e.g., eating meat and drinking wine. Krias shem, by contrast, is primarily expressed as contemplation of the essence of Shabbos, which is oneg. Through the appreciation of the perfection of one's world, one experiences a harhavas da'as – an expansion of understanding – that can be expressed in even the smallest addition l'kavod Shabbos.
Rabbi Estreicher expressed all this for the secular students without one ma'mar Chazal or the citation of a single verse, as far as I remember. (Only afterwards, when I told him how much I had gained from his presentation, did he point me to the Pachad Yitzchak.) There was something else, however, that I greatly appreciated about his speech. Two of his stories to illustrate the proper attitude of a Jew on Shabbos were based on his father.
Both involved not having light on Shabbos. In the first, the battery that provided electricity in the Estreicher home on Shabbos failed. The entire leil Shabbos meal, his father spoke about nice it was to eat by the light of the Shabbos candles and the added dimension to the zmiros in that state of semi-darkness.
In the second story, the family was placed in a borrowed apartment for Shabbos for a family simcha. Mrs. Estreicher lit the Shabbos candles on the kitchen counter top, far away from dining room, to avoid any possibility of fire. When the family returned from davening, they found the apartment plunged in total darkness. Yaakov nudged his sister as they crossed the threshold, as if to say, "Let's see how Abba turns this into perfection." But the elder Estreicher did not disappoint. After somehow making Kiddush and HaMotzee, the family bentsched and went to sleep. For the rest of Shabbos, the father spoke of how many decades it had been from the last time he slept so long and what a pleasure it was to do so once very forty years or so.
I've reached the age where I've begun to contemplate what kinds of things my children will say over to their children and grandchildren when they talk about their father. What will be the values they feel they received from their family, the frequent sayings they heard, the stories that they think have something of importance to convey to future generations. Actually, I think this is something that all parents should think about, no matter what their age, and that doing so might make better parents of all of us. But in any event, it gave me great pleasure to hear this dynamic young speaker have to look no further than his own father for illustrations of the values he was trying to convey, and something to aspire to.
Memories of the Family Dinner
I had not gotten very far in the new issue of Klal Perspectives before being enveloped in warm, fuzzy memories of my childhood. The subject of the issue is changing gender roles in the Orthodox world and its impact on the family – not a subject by itself designed to arouse warm feelings.
In his lead article, Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore acknowledges that the social trends that have so dramatically changed the family dynamic from what it was fifty years ago are likely here with us for the indefinite future – whether it is women working to provide a second salary to help meet the expenses of a large Orthodox family or functioning as the principal breadwinner while the husband learns in kollel. But he argues that it is not only the family structure that has changed but also to some extent the centrality that family occupied in the lives of our parents. As a modest step to reverse the attitudinal shift, he offers the modest proposal of reemphasizing the family dinner.
I have often asked myself why my parents were successful in ways that few were in the upper-middle class Chicago suburb in which I grew up. Four out of their five sons became Torah-observant Jews. Among my parents' friends, a handful of grandchildren is the norm; they were zocheh to more than thirty. The turbulent '60s, and the self-destructive behaviors it glorified, largely passed over the Rosenblum family.
Yet the only thing I can point to that distinguished our home from those around us was our nightly family dinner. Dinner was a family affair, conducted around a table set with a table cloth and cloth napkins, with plenty of chores to be divided before, during, and after dinner. One needed parental permission to leave the table, and more often than not, it was denied. On leil Shabbos, required dress was semi-formal – we were expected to be freshly showered in pressed pants and button down shirts – and attendance was mandatory.
Even the families of my friends who did eat together usually did so in front of a TV set. But a TV was not part of the furniture in either the dining room or adjoining living room of our home. The only time a TV was ever allowed to invade the sanctum of the dining room was during the U.N. debates leading up to the Six-Day War, when we sat more or less in silence listening to Abba Eban defend Israel with supreme eloquence.
The conversation was not uniquely scintillating most of the time. And with five boys, the fate of Chicago's usually hapless sports teams, was no doubt one of the prime topics of conversations. As the sole female at the table, my mother was frequently left to plea with my brothers and me to switch the conversation to one of "more general interest."
But sitting together every night for seventeen years, before we went off to college, meant that we imbibed our parents' opinions on almost every issue of relevance, even if largely by osmosis. Their values and keen sense of right and wrong were conveyed cumulatively in thousands of remarks over those years. We knew that they viewed being Jewish as the most important thing about us, even if they never articulated why.
And they knew us as well – our activities and friends. And our hour or so together every night insured that they had their finger on the pulse of our occasionally volcanic teenage emotions. Sitting around table created a bond and a sense of the family as a unit. I have little doubt that one of the things that attracted my brothers and me to the chareidi community was its family-centeredness.
Until I started practicing law myself, I did not realize what a sacrifice of his career my father, a"h, had made by leaving early enough to be home for dinner with the family every night. Baruch Hashem, he lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of that quite conscious decision to choose family over career.
Rabbi Hauer proposes that more families make similar decisions to put a priority on the family dinner. From the above, it is clear I think he is on to something. But whether or not the proposal catches on, I'm grateful to him for bringing back some happy childhood memories.