The Light of Shabbos, and Shabbos without Lights
At a recent Shabbaton of the Nefesh-Yehudi organization, which does kiruv work on the major campuses in Israel, I attended a presentation on the meaning of Shabbos given by Rabbi Yaakov Estreicher, a dynamic young speaker. I was interested to see how he would describe Shabbos to secular students. But I had no expectation that I would personally go away with a new deher (approach) to Shabbos. I was wrong.
Rabbi Estreicher presented Shabbos as the key to experiencing life with joy, of rejoicing in one’s portion. He noted how rare it is to meet someone overflowing with joy. If we asked someone how he was, and he responded enthusiastically by enumerating at great length everything there is to be grateful for, we would likely suspect him of having a screw loose or partaking of illicit stimulants.
But that is precisely what Shabbos allows us to do. On Shabbos, we refrain from all melachah – which, as Rabbi Estreicher explained at length, refers not to the expenditure of energy, but to creative activity – and are therefore forced to view the world as complete, and not in need of any further improvement. We learn to appreciate what we have.
Rabbi Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Shabbos 5) emphasizes this point. He writes that in the verse, “And Elokim saw es kol (all) that He had made and behold it was very good,” kol does not refer to all the many things He had created, but is rather the language of completion, klila. Elokim saw how the entire creation fit together in one seamless whole, and that was the tov meod.
Thus in the blessing Yotzer Or during the week, we say, “ma rabu ma’asecha – how manifold are Your works,” but on Shabbos, we say “ma gadlu ma’asecha – how great are Your works.” “Manifold” refers to the multitude of infinite detail; “great” refers to the way in which all those details fit together in one perfect tapestry.
It is natural and proper that during the week, we should notice all that can be improved and needs to be done. That is part of what it means to be partners with Hashem in tikkun olam. But there also has to be a time when we cease thinking about all that is lacking and acting upon those thoughts, and instead contemplate the world as if were complete, without any further need of our creative input. Rav Hai Gaon instructs us to view ourselves on Shabbos like someone who has finished all the work of building a beautiful house, just as the world was complete in Hashem’s eyes, “Va’yechal Elokim b’yom ha’svi’i.
The ability to stop trying to fix things, and to instead step back and appreciate all that we have been given and how perfectly apportioned it is to our present task in life is the source of the most profound joy. Rabbi Hutner notes the difference between the description of our approach to Shabbos – “ve’karata l’Shabbos oneg (You shall call Shabbos oneg) – and that of Yom Tov – “ve’samachta b’chagecha (You shall rejoice on your festival). The latter is expressed in terms of concrete acts of simcha – e.g., eating meat and drinking wine. Krias shem, by contrast, is primarily expressed as contemplation of the essence of Shabbos, which is oneg. Through the appreciation of the perfection of one’s world, one experiences a harhavas da’as – an expansion of understanding – that can be expressed in even the smallest addition l’kavod Shabbos.
Rabbi Estreicher expressed all this for the secular students without one ma’mar Chazal or the citation of a single verse, as far as I remember. (Only afterwards, when I told him how much I had gained from his presentation, did he point me to the Pachad Yitzchak.) There was something else, however, that I greatly appreciated about his speech. Two of his stories to illustrate the proper attitude of a Jew on Shabbos were based on his father.
Both involved not having light on Shabbos. In the first, the battery that provided electricity in the Estreicher home on Shabbos failed. The entire leil Shabbos meal, his father spoke about nice it was to eat by the light of the Shabbos candles and the added dimension to the zmiros in that state of semi-darkness.
In the second story, the family was placed in a borrowed apartment for Shabbos for a family simcha. Mrs. Estreicher lit the Shabbos candles on the kitchen counter top, far away from dining room, to avoid any possibility of fire. When the family returned from davening, they found the apartment plunged in total darkness. Yaakov nudged his sister as they crossed the threshold, as if to say, “Let’s see how Abba turns this into perfection.” But the elder Estreicher did not disappoint. After somehow making Kiddush and HaMotzee, the family bentsched and went to sleep. For the rest of Shabbos, the father spoke of how many decades it had been from the last time he slept so long and what a pleasure it was to do so once very forty years or so.
I’ve reached the age where I’ve begun to contemplate what kinds of things my children will say over to their children and grandchildren when they talk about their father. What will be the values they feel they received from their family, the frequent sayings they heard, the stories that they think have something of importance to convey to future generations. Actually, I think this is something that all parents should think about, no matter what their age, and that doing so might make better parents of all of us. But in any event, it gave me great pleasure to hear this dynamic young speaker have to look no further than his own father for illustrations of the values he was trying to convey, and something to aspire to.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.