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Shabbat is the Answer to Every Question

“Shabbat is the answer to every question.” This mantra is one of my favorite teaching and organizing tools in Jewish life. Here’s how it works: ask everyone in the room what questions they have. I’m not talking about things you can Google or ask an expert – real questions that you’re struggling with. Almost without fail, the majority of questions boil down to one of the following:

• How can I have more meaningful experiences with family and friends outside of work (though sometimes this question is simply “how can my work be more meaningful”)?

• How can I balance taking care of myself & family while also working toward fixing this broken world?

• How can I unplug from my technology addiction?

A small gathering for shabbat dinner, with some intentionally sourced food and light conversation can both meet the needs of the above questions as well as the four propositions in the Megatrends essay. My current work with the newly founded “Jewish Initiative for Animals” (JIFA) and our collaboration with Hazon aligns with this approach as well.

Proposition 1: Sacred texts with relevance

Ask your average person if they’d like to stare into the pages of a heavy book full of Hebrew letters, and you won’t get many takers. Ask the same person what they had for breakfast today and there are going to be multiple dimensions to that story. Offer them Jewish sources that both challenge and align with their values and they are now engaged with sacred text. Easy to download and print study guides that weave ancient and modern text and resources, such as the Hazon Food for Thought is flexible enough for a variety of literacy levels.

Proposition 2: Tzedek

When considering the integration of tzedek into communal life, one must always weigh impact and meaning. A one-day canned food drive or volunteer project at a soup kitchen may have high meaning for the individuals involved, but does not have a long term impact on food access. When food at a shabbat dinner is sourced according to communal values and celebrated publicly, the entire meal can be elevated to a tzedek experience. What was once a few hundred individuals making personal choices for their family will soon be a few hundred organizations publicly declaring food policies rooted in Jewish ethics and other contemporary values.

As part of my work with JIFA and the Hazon Seal, networks of Jewish institutions are re-thinking how they spend their food budgets with a focus on sustainability and animal welfare. Instead of the old “think global, act local” motto, we will soon be able to report that thousands of challot are now egg free or from cage-free eggs, tons of kosher chicken are no longer from factory farms and bushels of vegetables are sourced directly from local farms.

Soon, small acts are going to have a huge impact on the large scale, as Pope Francis affirms “a change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power.” Reports of networks of Jewish institutions taking on these policies can influence the food industry to change their ways even before they are forced to by market pressure.

Proposition 3: To achieve kehillah, unplug

About ten years ago I was on a trip in Jerusalem with a friend of mine named Kate who was raised Unitarian Universalist. She joined me for a shabbat dinner at a friend’s apartment. It was a lovely meal with delicious food and wonderful conversation. After the meal and, many times since, Kate remarked to me about her favorite part of the meal: “I can’t remember the last time I sat at a table where every single person was present and didn’t have their phones out…not even once.”

This proposition is also about intimacy. If folks are only going to Jewish concerts and lectures, but not connected with people in small groups, ideally in the home, they are not building the sort of relationships that will sustain their Jewish practice long term. In-person & technology-free settings are the first step – small group intimacy is the essential second step. Shabbat dinners, especially in homes and not in large buildings, make this happen.

Proposition 4: Holiness & transcendence

It is not difficult for a contemporary Jew to fully believe that they can connect to the Divine outside the walls of the synagogue. However, it is extremely unlikely that if they are doing this they are considering this act one that is Jewish. The lucky ones (still less than 10% in North America) have attended summer camp and increasing numbers are participating in Jewish meditation retreats and Jewish farming fellowships such as Adamah, Urban Adamah and Pearlstone. It is still shocking to me how many Jews who were raised in cities and suburbs literally need to unlearn that prayer = indoors + rows + heavy Hebrew books.

It would be one thing if the only step was to grab your siddur and take it with you to the field. And yet, our tradition is rich with earth based spiritual practices throughout the seasons. Whether we are teaching Jewish meditation or aligning each holiday with an outdoor ritual, there are countless opportunities to awaken people to the holiness around us and inside of us.

Giving individual Jews the tools to develop a daily weekday personal prayer practice, in additional to a weekly communal shabbat practice, is an essential step toward revitalizing Jewish life in the 21st century. In most of my teachings, I start with encouraging food blessings, but also offer models for daily chanting or sitting practice.

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