Parashat Beha’alotecha

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, June 1, 2018

Over the course of the past nine months that we’ve been together, I have spent a fair amount of energy trying to understand what we are doing here, why you come, why I come.  When I started my rabbinic journey, it was an intellectual pursuit.  I was tired of other people telling me what Judaism had to say about X, Y, or Z, and I wanted the foundational knowledge in text that my own Jewish education lacked.   Although I was always deeply involved in the Jewish community as a leader through social action, summer camps, song-leading, Israel trips, teaching, and learning, I was never up on the bima leading prayer services.  In fact, personal prayer had no real role in my life.  At High Holidays I engaged in the community processes of self-reflection and reorienting my life toward the future that I wanted, but the personal parts of the service, the morning blessings, the Shema, the Amida, they were for the most part an exercise of reciting words I didn’t understand in a language I was struggling to learn.

It was a bit of a shock to my system when I realized that to graduate rabbinical school I would have to be a proficient prayer leader… and to be a proficient prayer leader is more than just knowing when to stand or to bow, to be proficient you have to care… prayer, or whatever you want to call what we do when we gather as a community, has to move me, and it has to move you in order for me to lead it well.

I asked Rabbi Mintz early on, why draws people to our Friday night services?  What do folks expect to get out of it?   In traditional communities, people are obligated to pray three times a day in a minyan and so they convene to fulfil that mitzvah.   For most of us here tonight, we are drawn for other reasons…  because Friday night services mark the end of the work week, we see our friends, we are drawn to the music, we come to say Kaddish for our loved ones or to pray for their health and recovery from illness, we enjoy the food at the oneg…  all these things give us meaning in our lives, they meet a need we have, to slow down, to take a breath, and to renew ourselves.

We just sang the song “V’shamru…”  The words speak of the six days of creation… that God worked creating the world for 6 days and then he “Shabbat v’yinafash…”, God rested and renewed itself.   The root of the word v’yinafash is nefesh.  Nefesh means soul.   God rested and “souled” itself…What does it mean to “soul” yourself?

When we think about Shabbat, we think about Shabbat as the 7th day of the week. It isn’t a separate entity, like there is a 6-day workweek and then there is Shabbat…rather, Shabbat completes the week.  God worked and then rested and together, those 7 days made a complete whole.  God sets the example that we, like God, need to rest, we need to recharge, we need to re-soul ourselves.

How do we “re-soul” ourselves?  We start by doing things that during the week we do not have time to do.  Personally, I take a deep breath, slow down, and spend quality time with the people who I care about.  I recognize that I am taking a break from the rush of the other 6 days, and I mark time by connecting with Jewish tradition, even if it is in a non-traditional way.

Not because I feel commanded by God to observe Shabbat in a particular way, but because I see the effect that disconnecting from the stress of creating has on my relationships I choose to:

  1. Turn my work email off my phone so it doesn’t pop up and call me back to answer or even think about it during Shabbat.
  2. Light candles via internet as a family
  3. Blessing my children

When we are deep in the muck of the rest of the week, it ensouls us to know that we can get through to the next Shabbat when will be able to lean back, to take a breath, to step away and renew ourselves.

And so, whatever the reasons you are here tonight, because Friday night services mark the end of the work week, or you follow traditional practice to “daven ma’ariv”/to pray the evening service, or to see friends, or the music is great, or to say Kaddish for loved ones or to pray for their health and recovery, to enjoy the food at the oneg…  all these things give us meaning in our lives, they meet a need we have, to slow down, to take a breath, and to renew ourselves.  It is a privilege to share this with you.

In closing, I hope you will join us for our Shabbat lunch program after Torah Study when I am here.  It will give us the chance to get to know each other better and help me to understand what draws you to P’nai Tikvah as we create a community that renews and re-souls us on our journey.

Shabbat shalom.