By Rabbi Marc Wilson
I believe that my adult children, Chanie, Joey and Ben, have made their peace knowing that I drive on Shabbat.
I started driving on Shabbat just recently, despite knowing that I am transgressing the strict Jewish law that I have observed for decades. Now debilitating illness requires me to do otherwise.
As my grandchildren, who have been raised not to ride on Shabbat, arrive at their teens, time has come for me to explain — maybe justify — the reason that I do. This is the explanation I have given them. For the strict constructionists of halacha, it has many flaws. Regardless, a few weeks ago I told them the following, now expanded for more the mature, discerning reader.
You have certainly noticed that I am no longer able to walk to shul on Shabbat and holy days. I hope you also notice that riding and driving on Shabbat still tear at my conscience and make me suffer much grief. I have not violated that law before, but now things have changed.
As you have seen, my legs have gotten quite weak, primarily from nerve problems and my diabetes. The pain in my legs is nearly unbearable, even when I walk just a block.
So each Shabbat I face this dilemma: Do I walk, drive or stay home from shul? I have made the choice to drive, but just to do divine work. No mall or deli.
I know that many great rabbis say even this is forbidden. But I have made my peace with driving on Shabbat to help in a crisis, praying and counseling with the critically ill and his/her family, responding to a death, visiting an infirm community member. I am routinely summoned to use my rabbinical calling to help hurting people face their crises and grief.
And then there are the times of celebrations in our family: a bris, a bar or bat mitzvah, an aufruf, and joyous times.
As a Jew, as a person of fast faith, I know that I dare not overrule G-d. But I also dare say that from Torah to Talmud to the ongoing rabbinic tradition, we get a fairly sharp picture of G-d’s personality: merciful, gracious, patient, kind, truthful, forgiving sin and pardoning it (Exodus 34).
It becomes obvious that He beckons us to be at the side of the sick, the fettered, the hungry, the naked, the wounded and the suffering. Just read G-d’s warning in Isaiah 58: “Do not turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
G-d’s attributes are loving and forgiving, not wrathful and hustling for reasons to gig us.
So under these loving, supportive circumstances, I do “violate” G-d’s law. Somehow, I feel that G-d understands and forgives.
It would be hard to comprehend why it would better to serve G-d by sitting alone in an empty house, absent from the side of the sick and bereaved, not celebrating a simcha shel mitzvah with family and friends. I feel a gaping wound in my heart just thinking about being absent from Sophie’s bat mitzvah or Simmy’s bar mitzvah.
Would that make anyone feel more honored, especially G-d?
The essential question: What would best honor G-d and His creations? Would G-d be more beloved and happier if He saw us sitting alone and miserable while our loved ones daven, dance, sing and renew friendships just three miles away? Or bring a smile or a tear to a dying friend?
I hope you will keep all this in mind and not feel badly toward me when I drive to an event that enhances a divine command. Someone once said, “There is the Torah of the ‘head’ and the Torah of the ‘soul.’ ”
I do not recommend my solution to anyone else. Your conscience, your relationship with G-d, your priorities must guide your path.
I have made my peace. I am ready to greet my critics with respect and honor. I understand your position, even if you may not understand mine.
I do not write to convince, simply to explain.
Rabbi Marc Wilson, formerly of Atlanta, is a community organizer and founder of MeetingPoint in Greenville, S.C.