Using both Hassidic and classic commentaries, these excerpts from the article “Shabbat and the Possibility of Transformation” explore Kiddush as a reminder of the personal and national redemptive power of Shabbat. The entire article, written by Rabbis Sharon Brous and Aaron Alexander from The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (Conservative)in Los Angeles, can be viewed at the bottom of the post. Although the essay is accessible to a wide range of readers, it is quite lengthy and requires some familiarity with basic ideas in Jewish thought.
Shabbat and the Possibility of Transformation
Shabbat is so much more than a day of rest. It is a day of reconnecting with our deepest dreams for our world and our own lives. Shabbat becomes the holy time that saves us from falling into despair when everything seems to be crumbling beneath us, when the light in our lives seems to be eclipsed in darkness. It comes to remind us that love will ultimately triumph over loneliness, understanding over violence, dignity over degradation. Through praying, singing, talking, walking, dreaming, and sleeping we fortify the part of ourselves that knows that things can be better; we reawaken the part of ourselves that may have forgotten that we are more than our work, our conflicts, our fears, or our inbox.
In Kiddush, the blessing sanctifying Shabbat which is said over wine every Friday night, we evoke the memory of the Exodus from Egypt. What does Egypt have to do with our celebration of Shabbat? The Rabbis knew that it was not enough to reaffirm to the great redemptive vision that grew out of the experience of leaving Egypt only once a year, at Passover. Instead, we need to remind ourselves of the possibility of freedom and transformation – personal and national– constantly. And especially on Shabbat. But that exercise in memory must never be only for its own sake. In the words of the Slonimer Rebbe, a great 20th century Hassidic teacher:
“Every Shabbat has the power to bring redemption to the world. And this is why the commandment is written, ‘Keep the Shabbat, and sanctify it. And you must remember, because you were a slave in Egypt’ – it is incumbent upon every Jew to remember and truly know [the experience of the liberation from slavery], because it is on Shabbat that the possibility of Yetziat Mitzrayim, (the liberation of those enslaved) is renewed. And this is not exclusively for the sake of memory, rather it is for the sake of actually doing the work of Shabbat. A Jew must rise up from a place of degradation, a devastating situation, and find within herself ultimate freedom. And as our teacher taught: the essence of Shabbat is the memory of Yetziat Mitzrayim because it is upon every Jew to remember that it is her life’s work to leave Egypt, and with the strength of the holy Shabbat, to bring redemption to the world.”
Shabbat then is not just about affirming that things can be different. Shabbat actually has redemptive power – a power that can shape our experience of the world and help turn the tide of human history – because it leaves us with a mandate to live differently in the coming week than we did in the past; to see our personal liberation from exhaustion, overwork, anxiety, despair as a microcosm for the liberation of the Jewish people and all people; to see each week as an opportunity to elevate our reality to reflect a bit more of what ought to be.
Week after week, year after year, century after century, the Jewish people walk through history with this charge: things can be better. They must be better. Do not forget the great dreams our people have carried, encoded in our rituals and our traditions, for thousands of years. Now go – and become agents of the change you want to see.
Zakhor et Yom Ha-Shabbat – Remember the Sabbath Day and the Positive Commandments
In Exodus 20:8, the Torah famously teaches us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, Zakhor et Yom HaShabbat L’Kodsho. This positive obligation (mitzvat aseh) has been debated by rabbinic scholars because of the ambiguity of the directive “to remember”. Is this something that can be actively pursued? Two major streams of interpretation have attempted to concretize this seemingly benign directive.
The 11th century luminary, Rashi, understands the unique form the verb zakhor to intimate that this mitzvah is an expression of an ongoing action, it is something that exists all of the time. According to Rashi, “Pay attention to always remember the Sabbath day so that if you chance upon a beautiful thing, you shall prepare it for the Sabbath.”
Read in this light, remembering Shabbat is an obligation that occurs not only on the day itself, but on all days. Every moment becomes an opportunity to actively acknowledge that, not too far away, there is a sacred space and holy time that begs special attention. By capturing these moments and actualizing them, even before Shabbat, we are fulfilling this obligation to acknowledge the potential for holiness in everything.
The Rambam understands this verse differently. He teaches: “It is a positive commandment from the Torah to sanctify the Shabbat day with a verbal statement, for it is written: ‘Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it (Ex. 20:8)'”. That is to say, remember it with words ofpraise and sanctification. The remembrance is done at the day‘s entrance and exit: at its entrance with Kiddush and at its exit with Havdalah.
According to this interpretation, the obligation “to remember” exists specifically on Shabbat – at its onset and conclusion – with a verbal statement of sanctification. A first step to actualizing the dream is verbally marking it
This familiar practice is the centerpiece of the Shabbat evening ritual, the Kiddush. It is the verbal recognition that we have entered sacred time and space. In fact, a common misconception about the Shabbat Kiddush is that it is simply a blessing over wine. In actuality, it is time itself that we are blessing. In fact, by specifically mentioning the redemptive communal moment of the Exodus from Egypt (see above), we render time “timeless”. We sanctify all time. The wine (or grape juice) is but the vehicle we use to add joy and sweetness to this moment.Shabbat Transformation