Shabbat Chumesh | Shabbat Prime
Shabbat Chumesh | Shabbat Prime
By Richard Abbott, UK
I work at a school for children with behavioural problems, they’ve been excluded from mainstream education because they’re too disruptive and, while we do teach them curriculum, our priority is to teach them how to function in a school. We have to teach them patience, resilience, anger management, how and why to accept rules even when you think they’re stupid. These kids haven’t been lucky like you or I, they’ve been through the worst things you can imagine and they’re still trying to get it right even if they miss the mark now and then. They’ve been let down by the people who were supposed to provide for them, protect them, nurture them and guide them. I love these kids, if you saw them in the street you might pity them, or scold them or maybe even hate them, but if you knew them, really knew them, you’d love them too.
Friday was sports day. If you’ve been to sports day in any primary school, (wait, Americans… erm elementary school? I think that’s right) then you know that sports day means tears. Right? Wrong. In this school sports day means punching people, throwing things that aren’t meant to be thrown and
The only tears I saw were when one boys was chasing after his mother who was trying to leave. Again.
Sports day was tiring, but well worth it, there were a lot of wins; they have struggled and they have prevailed. After school I rushed about trying to get my jobs done before sunset in preparation for shabbat. I went to the bank, the doctors and picked up some (what do americans call it?) laundry detergent. I passed a homeless man selling ‘The Big Issue’, I realised this needed to be on my list. Some erev shabbat tsedekah. If you translate tsedekah into English, it doesn’t line up with charity, it would be more like the word justice. This means that to not do tsedekah would be injustice. My shabbat requires charity, requires justice. I took out a little money and gave a token to two more homeless gentlemen along my route home.
We were babysitting on that night for some friends. We brought a bunch of books and I brought my shabbat candles and we ordered Chinese. My favourite in Bristol is called Dragon Express. Sophie and I are vegetarians and Draggies are really good at making vegetarian copies of traditional Chinese meat dishes, you wouldn’t believe me unless you tasted it, but the first time I tried their Satay Ji Skewers I nearly cried. For a goy making the transition to a Kosher lifestyle life is made infinitely easier by vegetarianism. You’d be surprised how little I have to think about it. I supposed I could up my game further but I’ve already given up JellyBabies (do you have them in the US?).
When the food arrived they’d sent us the wrong one! Chicken. I was devastated, not only the hunger but I was so hopeful about the satay. We ate plain rice and I was a grumpy-arse. It got to a little after nine and I lit the shabbat candles. I prayed my bracha and davened and in that quiet place, with the heat from the candles warming the back of my hands a stillness, a kavanah came over me.
“Rice is not so bad honey, we have it a lot better than many people.” I said to Sophie. “Absolutely.” We both work in jobs were we meet people with much harder lives than us. “I’m sorry I was a grumpy-arse.”
“That’s ok, you can be a grumpy-arse if you want to.”
I love Mrs Abbott.
Halfway through the film the baby woke up. She was fretting and fussing but she didn’t need anything. We took turns giving her a little cuddle and singing lullabies. It didn’t frighten her at all that we weren’t mum and dad, she could tell instantly that we were safe people and she drifted off playing with my beard.
This is a good way to start shabbat. Spending time loving our families or caring for other people is a good way to understand HaShem. You’ll notice how often atheists ask religious people
“If G-D’s real why is there suffering in the world.” But it’s rare to hear that question right after you help someone. If you give money to the poor, share with homeless people, protect someone in danger, feed someone who is hungry or teach a child, you tend to feel the presence of G-D not the absence of Him. There is something very real in that. Why do you think so many Jewish festivals include mitzvah’s of generosity, chesed, tzedekah, charity? This is how we draw close to G-D: tikkun olam – healing the world. Division, suffering, ignorance and pain separate us from G-D. Healing, caring, protecting providing make us close to Him, make us more like Him.
Why is it a mitzvah to have lots of kids? Who do you know in Judaism has the most children? Baruch HaShem, Eloheinu, Malecheinu, Adoneinu, Aveinu.
I woke up on shabbat and texted James, encouraging him to get ready early so we wouldn’t be late. He didn’t get the message till when he woke up (Later I promised him that next week I would text him on the Friday telling him to go to bloody bed on time instead!).
I crowned myself in my yarmulke and strode triumphantly off to shul. When I arrived there was a man on the other side of the street taking photos of the synagogue with a digital camera. He didn’t
acknowledge me. I assumed he must be a tourist or an fan of architecture. I ascended the steps and was welcomed in through the gate.
I shabbat-shalomed the gent who let me in and turned to see that the photographer had followed me up the steps and was taking photos through the bars of the gate. The gate keeper approached expecting him to be a congregant and greeted him, but the man ignored him, took his pictures and left. The whole interaction made me uncomfortable. Later, when I was inside starting my prayers, I saw an old bag lady talking to the gat keeper. Later it turned out he didn’t really understand her except that she wanted to come in. He told her he would have to check her bags, she wasn’t having any of that and eventually she left. It must be very difficult for people with a weak grasp on reality to see Judaism for the wonder that it is. If you’re paranoid an delusional and you think they’re out to get you and that people might be evil it must be hard to believe how much time we spend thinking about G-D and trying to be good. They see a community that wants to keep to themselves and not bother anyone, that wants to be safe behind closed doors, that doesn’t want to be drawn into debates. In short a community that has been hurt and one that doesn’t want to be hurt again.
The important thing to remember is that first impressions are misleading. Even behaviour is misleading. People are good, profoundly good. Even when they do bad things they’re still good. Even when they’re trying to do right but falling short. Even when they can’t see that we’re good too.
HaShem made the people who have been hurt, HaShem made the people who hurt them, and the people who hurt them. But HaShem also made the people who heal others. Let’s be the latter.
After shul I stayed for lunch with Rabbi Daniels and his wife. Wonderful people. We chatted Judaism and jewish culture and brachas and we sang together and ate together. It was a beautiful sunny day and we opened the fire exit and a breeze wafted in from the garden. Now and then the Rabbi’s wife would wander off to sit quietly alone and come back when she was ready. She was an excellent conversationalist and a sharp wit and I felt replenished by the whole shabbat. We asked question after question and dipped into the shul’s library. After a while I worried that I was taking too much of their time.
“What will you do after this?”
“A little schluf.” said the Rabbi with a grin.
I entered the shul at 10 am and left at 5pm. It was a very good day.
On Sunday Sophie and I went walking in the Wales near the sugarloaf mountain. We sat on a ledge with our legs dangling over a cliff, some two hundred feet to the basin below, eating falafel and salad with our fingers.
“Rich,” she asked me, “Since you started this journey into Judaism, do you feel closer to G-D?” “The short answer is yes, but before I bore you with the long answer, why do you ask?”
“You talk a lot about Judaism and a little about G-D.”
“That’s a very good point. It’s something I’ve thought about and something I need to be careful about.” I thought for a minute and drew on the analogy of music. “When I sit in shul following the words of the parashat with my finger without understanding them I think about G-D.
It may seem stupid to follow along when I don’t understand. But because I do follow along, one day I will understand.
It’s like when a musician practices their scales. People might say, ‘that’s not very creative’ but by practicing them even when it’s tedious or difficult, you gain access to an ability and understanding of music you wouldn’t otherwise have. I do love the culture of Judaism partly just for itself but mostly because it’s born from a people who stamp every experience with an awareness of G-D. Did I tell you about oranges?”
“There’s a blessing for bread, the most common food in Jewish life, but there’s a different one for special fruit. You bless G-D for the wondrous experience and the has two effects. It reminds you to
be present in the experience of eating the orange, the flavour the texture, the colour the smell and secondly it connects you in that experience to G-D. That’s Judaism, it takes all of human experience and elevates it to G-D.”