“The Thing”

I recently ran across another great example of “The Thing” … you know, The Thing that drew me to Judaism a decade ago; The Thing that causes me to obsess about studying Judaism, so that I can untangle the mystery for myself, and then explain it to my kids and my wife, to my friends, and …[does it sound too big a delusion of grandeur to say aloud??]… to the world.

Regarding the origin of Shabbat, Rabbi Bernard M. Zlotowitz explained:

According to traditional Jewish belief, the Sabbath has its origin in God’s divine command to observe the seventh day as a day of rest and sanctification.

Scholars, on the other hand, are divided in their opinion concerning the origin of the Sabbath, although they all agree that it was borrowed from another culture.
* Babylonia – Some scholars contend that its origin is Babylonian. The Babylonians believed that the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of the month (flowing the phases of the moon) were evil days and, therefore, the physician, the oracular priest, and the king ceased all labor on those days. The cessation of work on the day they called Sabattu was based upon fear and had no relation to the biblical concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest, joy, and refreshment of the soul.
* Canaan – Other scholars contend that the Hebrews borrowed the concept from the Canaanites, whose primitive agricultural calendar was based on a seven-day week. The Canaanites regarded the number seven to be evil and unlucky, a potential source of ill fortune to be avoided at all costs. They viewed this final day of the week as one on which evil spirits abounded and, therefore, as a day on which human labor would not prosper.

The ancient Hebrews, however, transformed this negative character of the seventh day into one of joy, refraining from labor because it was a day of gladness of the spirit. None of the scholarly theories explain how and why the Jews, who were supposed to have borrowed the Sabbath from the Canaanites or Babylonians, accomplished this transformation.

Essay in, AN INVITATION TO SHABBAT, by Ruth Perlson (N.Y.: URJ Books & Music, 1997) (emphasis and formatting modified).

And there, my friends, is “The Thing”: the Jews transformed a weekly day of evil, fear, and misfortune into a weekly day of joy and celebration of life. That transformation of bad to good, of celebrating the joy of simply being alive, even in the face of evil…

• it is the basis of the joke that summarizes every Jewish Holiday: “They tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat!”
• it is the mindset that allowed the Hasidim to dance and sing praises to Adonai as they were led into the Nazi gas chambers.
• it explains why my friend, who was eight years old at the time, remembers being awoken for a huge party with cake and dancing on the night in 1948 when Israel declared its Statehood, but her mother told me her memory of that night was being “terrified” because the declaration meant all of the surrounding countries would attack.
• it is the reason the Israeli calendar moves from Yom Ha’zicharon (a national day of mourning for fallen soldiers) directly into Yom Ha’atzmaut (a day celebrating the independence of the State).
• it is why we sing “mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid” – “being happy all the time is a great mitzvah”

Rabbi Zlotowitz says the scholarly theories do not explain how or why the Jews were able to transform the Seventh Day from a day of evil to a day of joy. “Why” the Jews would have done such a thing seems fairly self-evident — who wouldn’t rather live a day of joy than a day of fear??

But “How” … that “How” is the whole shebang!! Because how those ancient Jews transformed a community from living based on fear to living based on joy – I believe that “How” contains the spark that is the “key” to living a happy life … and that magic spark is The Thing that makes Judaism worth living today!!

So … what exactly is that “magic spark”? (because it’s not necessarily blind faith and it’s not necessarily engaging in mitzvot) … and how do we consistently bring that magic to life? (not just for my family, but for all the Jews who were never shown the beauty of what their tradition had to offer, and for all the Jews who forgot along the way) …

Those two questions … or, really, the finding of their answers … have become my passion, my quest, my mission in life. My search for them motivates me to study, to learn Hebrew, to create programs at synagogue, to read books by Jewish philosophers, to ask an annoying number of questions of any Rabbi that I can get to listen to me, and to try to synthesize the teachings of Rav Nachman, Viktor Frankl, Freud, Einstein, Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach, etc., etc. …

That spark of magic – the one that will remind us all to live from a place of joy, rather than fear – it’s out there, just waiting to be uncovered … and I’m going to find it …

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