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... But Why??

Posted on 11/08/2013 @ 11:07 AM

This weekend, Alephs and BBGs across the globe will be celebrating Shabbat as one nation and one family. Our attention to detail regarding the who, what, where, when, and how are covered, but if someone ever asked us why we were doing all this, like the simple child at the Passover Seder, would we be able to give them a truly satisfying answer? Why do we invest so much into celebrating Shabbat? Why have the Jewish people kept this day so revered?

When confronted with any big ‘why do we do X’ question, one helpful method is to look for the origin story of the practice or idea. In our case: What was life like for people before Shabbat was created? What human need did the institution of Shabbat address?

Archaeologists and historians have concluded that before the creation of Shabbat, ancient civilizations organized its units of time, holy days, and festivals around natural phenomena: the rhythm of the lunar cycle or the equinoxes and solstices. This structure corresponded with the pagan belief that nature was the vehicle by which the Gods bestowed blessings or punishments—human beings had no choice but to worship lest the natural world consume them. The Jewish invention of the seven-day week concluding with Shabbat, independent from any natural cycle, freed humans from thinking they were trapped by nature, subject to the erratic will of the Gods, instead allowing them to observe the natural world’s ordered and predictable structure.

Shabbat also created another revolution in human civilization. Since the dawn of time, the greatest kingdoms and empires had been built on the backs of grueling slave labor. The human body was a mere commodity, a tool for imperial growth. Shabbat, the first regular, designated day off in history, was unprecedented. A universal prohibition of labor for all people broke the age-old cycle of unceasing work and gave humanity the first glimpse at the possibility of a free and open society.

Let’s try to reclaim some of the wonder of that revolutionary, revelatory Shabbat spirit. We can be perfectly happy continuing to think of Shabbat as a day to have a nice dinner, but why stop there? Why not think of Shabbat as a way/day to think about what cycles we might be stuck in and need freedom from? Or a day to think about the millions of people throughout the world who are still trapped in slave-labor conditions and how to remedy their conditions?

AZA BBG Global Shabbat is a great opportunity to energize and celebrate Shabbat as one family. Recapturing these why’s of Shabbat has the potential to elevate our grape juice and challah, or Shacharit and Shabbat rotations, into moments which could spark the next paradigm shift of human civilization.

Asking why is Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western States Hub.

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