We are living in unprecedented times. The entire world has been hunkered down for months on end. Our daily lives have been disrupted in the most profound and unsettling way. There are many people suffering physically and financially, many whose lives and livelihoods are at risk.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, with the world in chaos, our home has become a haven – not only from a health and safety point of view, but also emotionally and spiritually.
And at the heart and soul of the Jewish home is the ultimate haven of all – Shabbat.
There was a time when the whole world was under water. A great flood has devastated everything. And there was one man, Noah, and his family, in an ark which provided a sanctuary from the turmoil raging outside. Crucially, the Ark was not only a physical refuge from the flood waters, but a spiritual refuge from the corruption of the world. And the Zohar compares Shabbat to Noah’s ark (Tikkunei Zohar 140a).
Our sages explain that the Ark’s higher purpose was to create an environment pervaded with chesed, loving-kindness. Noah and his family spent virtually the entire duration of their time on the Ark looking after the animals. The sheer scale of feeding and cleaning and caring is difficult to imagine. And there weren’t many people to share the load. Our sages tell us that contained within the Ark was the kernel of the new human society which was to be established after the flood. Indeed, this value of loving-kindness is the foundation of any flourishing human society (Psalms 89:3).
Shabbat provides a similar spiritual sanctuary. Like the ark, it’s a tranquil space where we can find emotional safety and security. And like the ark, Shabbat is a place of kindness and love. We bond with loved ones in a spirit of openhearted kindness and care. We reestablish our family on these loving foundations. As we enter the new week, our world is a safer, more secure, place.
Right now, it feels like the whole world is under water, submerged in fear and uncertainty. And yet, like Noah, we, too, have an ark. Somewhere we can escape to, where we can seek refuge from our anxieties, even if for just a day.
That day, that ark, is Shabbat.
When we enter Shabbat – when we keep Shabbat the way it has been kept for thousands of years – we enter a world of light and strength, of courage and hope. A world of connection.
When we keep Shabbat, we connect with the words of Kiddush, reminding us – reassuring us – that God created us and our world, and that we are in His loving Hands. When we keep Shabbat, we connect with our families, stepping out of the 24-hour news cycle, away from the anxiety and constant distractions and background noise that is the backdrop of our week. When we keep Shabbat, we connect with generations of Jews who have always turned to Shabbat as their refuge in good times and hard times.
The Hebrew word for flood comes from the root of the word for confusion and chaos (Rashi, Genesis 6:17). The flood waters turned the world upside down, creating total disarray. We, too, have lived through times of chaos and confusion. But our homes have been havens. And Shabbat can ensure they remain so – a place of stability and security, kindness and connection, warmth and love.
In just a few days’ time, Jews of all backgrounds, in more than 1 600 cities and 109 countries around the world, will welcome in Shabbat together as part of the global Shabbat Project. This year, the call of the project is to “Bring Shabbat Home”. With the coronavirus continuing to upend daily life, we are pivoting from the big city-wide events to a more intimate home-based experience.
The circumstances have driven us in this direction, but it is a blessing.
At this strange, unsettling time, let us step into our arks – into homes lit up with the light of Shabbat. Let us keep Shabbat – keeping our heads above the water, drawing comfort and renewed strength. And let us keep this Shabbat together – together with our families, together with Jews around the world.
In these turbulent times, Shabbat can be a real safe-haven for us. In a world turned upside down, it can keep us the right way up. In a world filled with foreboding about the future, Shabbat is our beacon of light and joy.
The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder of the International Shabbat Project, which will be taking place in more than 1 600 cities around the world on 6-7 Nov 2020. Visit www.theshabbatproject.com to find out more.