The world is more divided than it has been at any time in recent history. Across the globe, deep social fissures have been exposed, with communities fractured along political, social and religious lines. These divisions are exacerbated by social media, which, instead of bringing people together, is only entrenching our differences and pulling us further apart.
This year’s Shabbat Project is happening in a week, when many of these divisions will come to a head. It is the week of the US elections, a culmination of one of the most bitter, divisive and exhausting presidential races in the history of democracy. The elections have divided society in the most profound way, and not just in the US. More than about policy and governing ability, choosing who to vote for or support has become a statement of one’s values and very identity.
The week of The Shabbat Project also coincides with another ideological flashpoint. In Israel, it is the week that we mark the 25th anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, which has become symbolic of the deep divisions within Israeli society.
The problem of divisiveness goes beyond these particular events to a deeper societal malaise. The tone and content of public discourse have become toxic. Rage abounds. Vicious personal attacks have become the norm. Sneering contempt and snide put-downs have uprooted the art of debate. We seem to have lost the crucial ability to listen – to hear and understand the other side.
As a society, we’re struggling to maintain minimum levels of decency and respect when discussing emotive subjects. Somehow, we need to find a way to talk to each other differently – to debate the complex issues that divide us in a way that is humble and respectful, not angry and derisive.
In short, we’re in need of a gentler world. And that is the message of Flowers for Shabbat – a new initiative of The Shabbat Project. The concept is pretty simple. We’ve created a platform for people send a beautiful bouquet of flowers to the people who need them most at this time – COVID-19 sufferers; doctors and healthcare workers battling it out on the frontline; volunteer first-responders putting themselves in harm’s way; elderly people who have had to cut themselves off from the world for months at a time; and many others.
Flowers are not a practical gift. There’s no real function or utility – they simply convey a message of love and appreciation, of care and compassion. Flowers are also colourful and beautiful. The symbolism is clear. Beauty itself can be defined as the harmonious integration of disparate, and often opposite, parts. Flowers for Shabbat is a call for all of us to come together across our differences to create a kinder, gentler, more empathetic world. A more beautiful world.
This idea goes to the heart of the Jewish tradition. The Book of Proverbs (3:17) describes the Torah as “ways of pleasantness, and all of her paths are those of peace”.
Pleasantness and peace are the values we really need at this time. And Shabbat, perhaps more than any other Torah commandment, epitomises them. There is, of course, the traditional greeting we extend on this day – “Shabbat Shalom”. But the association runs deeper.
We know that the candles we light to usher in Shabbat were instituted by the rabbis of the Talmud to foster “shalom bayit”, literally peace in the home. Shabbat candles preserve peace in a very practical way by illuminating the space we live in so that the occupants of the house don’t stumble around and collide with each other (Rashi, Shabbat 25b).
More profoundly, the candles symbolise the light of love and attention. Their light allows us to savour the experience of being together on Shabbat; the candles create an atmosphere of tranquillity, and when people can see each other’s faces they can really connect. The pressures of the week place demands on our time, and divert our attention from the people closest to us. The light of the candles help us re-establish that intimate connection.
Seeing each other – really seeing each other – nurtures empathy, and is the secret to overcoming anger and resentment. “Judge every person favourably”, advises Pirkei Avot (1:6). In the original Hebrew there is a powerful nuance which allows for another reading of the words “every person” to mean “the entire person”. Judging someone favourably comes naturally when we see them in full context, when we keep in mind that their lives – like our own – are inevitably more complicated than they seem on the surface. That they go beyond which presidential candidate they support, or which political or ideological label we attach to them.
Shabbat gives us the time and space to truly see the whole person – and relate to those around us with empathy and compassion, generosity and kindness, love and closeness. In a world of fragmentation, Shabbat is a day of connection. In a world of cynicism and discord, Shabbat is a day of spirituality and love.
So now, at this time when we are reaching for a way forward – for a way to engage with each other with respect and decency, with dignity and peace – the global Shabbat Project provides the Jewish world with a unique, historic opportunity to do just that. It’s an opportunity to find each other across the walls we’ve built up; to enlarge our conception of each other and relinquish the unkind words and sentiments we’ve used to diminish one another.
Flowers. Candles. Shabbat. A simple formula for returning sanity to the world.
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 1,500 cities around the world from Nov 6-7, 2020. Visit www.theshabbatproject.com to find out more.