The opening subject in this week’s double parsha, which marks the conclusion of the book of Shemot, discusses the Shabat and its centrality in Jewish life and halacha. Rashi points out to us that this parsha regarding Shabat was stated and taught bhakheil in a public assembly and gathering – hence the name of the parsha itself – Vayakheil.
I have always felt that there is a great implicit but vital message in this idea of Shabat being taught bhakheil. Shabat has two distinct aspects to it. There is the private Shabat the meals and family table, the leisure and serenity of our homes during this holy day, the feeling of dignity and Jewish identity that Shabat automatically engenders in the soul of every Jew. But there is also the requirement that Shabat be taught bhakheil in a public fashion and forum. The public Shabat is the sign of the covenant between God and Israel and through Israel with all of humankind. It is the public Shabat that reaffirms the communal unity of the Jewish people and determines the direction of our public policies and agendas.
In the absence of a public Shabat the entire community structure of the Jewish people is weakened, our goals and objectives obscured and confusion reigns with regard to our true rights and purpose.. While the absence of a private Shabat for an individual and family eventually proves very costly in relationship to their continuity in Judaism, the absence of a public Shabat is a death knell for the Jewish community.
In recent decades the private Shabat has made a strong come back within many Jewish families. Even those who are not halachically observant attempt to have some sort of Shabat at home, whether it is in lighting the Shabat candles or having a special family meal. The realization of the importance to ones psychological and family well-being of having a private Shabat is slowly dawning on increasing numbers of Jews who otherwise are, in the main, non-observant of halacha and Jewish ritual. However, the public Shabat is slipping away from us, here in Israel and certainly in the Diaspora.
Jewish community centers in much of the United States, transformed basically into health clubs for all, stay open on the Shabat. In Israel, kibbutzim and some shopping malls skirt the official laws and stay open on the Shabat. Jewish airlines devise all sorts of subterfuges to fly on the Shabat with the excuse of customer service necessitating such practices. But again, a Jewish community that does not provide for a public face for the Shabat is dooming itself to Jewish extinction. It has been said often that more than the Jews guarding the Shabat, the Shabat has guarded the Jews.
In the difficult times in which we live, discarding the public Shabat is tantamount to spiritual suicide. Only by securing the public Shabat and treasuring it as the national gift that the Lord has granted us can we at the same time guarantee our continuity and future success as a people. Shabat shalom.
Rabbi Berel Wein Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com