I love Shabbat, but never before had the recitation of the blessing over wine brought tears to my eyes.
Just before we lit the candles, my son had called. He is in the middle of a closed Army training program and communication is limited – no newspapers or TV, and rare, very short phone calls, often weeks apart. His training is difficult, so when we talk, we do our best to focus on the positive, not on the complexities of life.
Looking ahead to his cousin’s bar mitzvah scheduled for the beginning of May, our son asked my husband to buy him a plane ticket.
We could not explain in a minute or two that the world as it was, with family gatherings and frequent air travel, was no longer really in play.
So we skirted the complexities unfolding in our world beyond his training camp and simply said, “We will do what needs to be done.”
The conversation ended. We returned to our rituals. When we began to recite the full text of the Shabbat blessings over the wine, the Kiddush, the words which I have said weekly my whole life, took on new and powerful meaning.
And there was evening and there was morning,
the sixth day.
The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day, God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. …You made the holy Shabbat our heritage as a reminder of the work of Creation. As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of the reality that is unfolding before us, these words recalled me to the timeless certainty of creation, the earth, our traditions and the divine. And just like that, tears began.
Right now we are all painfully aware that the only certainty is change.
And lack of control and rapid change are hard.
Even in the most ‘normal’ of times, the world is a very uncertain place. Violence, illness, random tragedy are not under our control. Still, most of the time we negotiate the world and the everyday with the illusion of control. COVID-19 has shattered our illusions.
Throughout the generations, in times as uncertain and even more uncertain than our own, our people have weekly come to the words of the Kiddush. While all ritual is grounding, the words of the Kiddush recall the story of creation as well as that of the Exodus from Egypt. They are a reminder of the universal truth of being, of the sun and the stars, the earth and the water. The Exodus is a reminder of the survival of our people through even the most difficult of times.
The Kiddush is also a reminder of the power of time. On my daily walks, I pass over the empty lanes of [Georgia] 400. Normally, a quick glance at the traffic gives me a sense of how busy our city is, the time of day and the day of the week. Now the traffic is always light, a reminder of how, in this time of social distancing, each moment is eerily similar to the next. The Kiddush reminds us that even when the days seem the same, the ritual of Shabbat helps us recall the markers of time. The Kiddush says, no matter what the traffic on 400, this day is not the same as the one before or the next.
Many of us are carrying more than we feel equipped to handle. I did not know what to say to our son that night, I do not know always how to calm myself. And so the power of Shabbat, its grounding format and its durability, provide the prayers I need more than ever.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is rabbi-in-residence of Be’chol Lashon, which advocates for Jewish diversity.