Shabbat: Still Keeping Us Connected, Grounded, and Whole

By Rabbi Jodie Gordon / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a man named Asher Ginsberg recently. Born in Kiev in the 19th century, Ginsberg was a prolific writer active in the revival of the Hebrew language, and a major voice in the stream of Zionist activity in pre-state Palestine that would be called “cultural Zionism.” He argued that the Jewish homeland should be more than simply a nation of Jews. Rather it should be a Jewish state, incorporating Jewish values. His political work was out in the open, especially in his work with a group that called themselves Hovevei Zion — lovers of Zion – but he often published under a pseudonym, calling himself Ahad Ha’am — which translates to “One of the People”.

And the reason that I was thinking about Asher Ginsberg a lot recently, is because out of the pages and pages of ink he spilled in the course of his lifetime, there is one line that stands out, most quoted, and most well-known:

“More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

I feel this in my bones, now more than ever.

In the more than 100 days that have passed since October 7, Shabbat has been a balm and source of healing; a way of marking time, and making it holy amidst the cruelties of these last months. More than any of the particularities about the ways in which we keep Shabbat, I have noticed, that Shabbat is keeping us: keeping us connected, grounded, and whole.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that Shabbat is not only a source of equilibrium, but of elevation. “It is one of life’s highest rewards, a source of strength and inspiration to endure tribulation, to live nobly…The Sabbath is the inspirer, the other days the inspired” (A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath, 22).

As a global Jewish people, in the Diaspora and in Israel, these have been days of deep tribulation. To remain human amidst the stories of suffering and loss is no small feat. We have seen the brutality that human beings are capable of live and in high-definition. And we know that suffering knows no borders: perhaps like me, you have found that the human hearts’ ability to bear witness to the pain of others is elastic. For some of us, the suffering is personal, familial, and close to home. For many others, the suffering we are witnessing in Israel and Gaza is a reflection of our shared humanity.

And so, each Friday night when the sun sets, I find myself ever more grateful for the respite. For me, Shabbat is the opportunity to differentiate time. A mentor of mine in my early years as a Jewish professional always said, “Shabbat doesn’t have to look a certain way; but it’s got to look different than your average Tuesday.” And so, in these days of real pain and struggle in our world, the invitation to step away from the news and to make Shabbat a “palace in time” (as Heschel would describe it) is that much more of a gift.

Our Jewish community is not a monolith: we bring our own unique experiences and perspectives to bear on this historical moment in Israel and for Jews around the world. And yet, despite the areas where our opinions and understandings of this moment do not align, Shabbat offers itself up like a banquet table overflowing with nourishment for our people. Shabbat becomes a place that we can inhabit together, sharing in the blessings of sacred time. Asher Ginsberg’s wisdom rings clear for me: even across lines of political divide, Shabbat may well be the thing that keeps the Jewish people.

Each opportunity we have to look into the eyes of someone we love, each time we see our beloved community illuminated by the flames of Shabbat candles, each time we taste the sweetness of wine made sacred by words of blessing – each time we break bread with friends and family — we are reminded that we are kept and held by something greater than ourselves.

My hope for all of us in this new year ahead, is that Shabbat will continue to be a meeting place for us all – a time set aside for remembering all that connects us, in our humanity, and in our difference.

Rabbi Jodie Gordon is a rabbi and director of education at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.