Stop and think about it for a moment. It’s actually beyond belief what we’ve been through this year. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown is the most dramatic interruption to ordinary life in modern history, and perhaps the biggest international crisis since the Second World War. It’s almost a throwback to the Spanish Flu of a century ago, or even something out of medieval times.
Who would have thought that at this stage of the 21st century, with all the advancements in technology and medicine the world has seen, we would be scurrying around in masks, washing our hands obsessively, isolating ourselves from human contact?
Who would have thought entire countries would be “locked down”, industry and commerce frozen, entire populations confined to their homes?
Who could have foreseen proud democracies imposing martial law on their citizens, with nightly curfews, the shuttering of shops and businesses, the abrupt closure of schools and places of worship?
As human beings we crave certainty, predictability, familiarity. When all of our expectations are overturned – when everything becomes so uncertain, so unpredictable, so unfamiliar – it forces us to relook at life and everything we thought we knew. We ask ourselves: can we really be certain about anything? And that in turn leads to deeper, more searching questions: what is the purpose of life? What do we want from life? Why are we even here?”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl documented his years in Auschwitz. His groundbreaking observation was that in many cases the people who survived the hell of Auschwitz were those able to find meaning and purpose in their dire circumstances. He wrote: “It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to those questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.”
At this time of worldwide suffering and anxiety, is there something that can help us find meaning in our experience? Is there something that can help us confront, understand and find answers to our existential questions?
I believe there is. There is, indeed, one thing that addresses all of these issues and answers all of these questions. It is a mitzvah which helps us deal with our deepest existential questions, and can bring us profund clarity and comfort.
That mitzvah is, of course, Shabbat.
Shabbat deals with the foundational questions of our existence. When we keep Shabbat, we declare that God created the world in six days and stopped creating on the seventh. To acknowledge this fact, we ourselves work for six days and stop on the seventh. This is our declaration that God is the Creator of the world.
The realisation that God has created this world leads us to another realisation – that the world was created with a purpose in mind, and that therefore there is meaning to our lives. Our lives are not an accident of colliding molecules; they originate from a purposeful act of creation by God.
And He created us in order to do good. We mention this in kiddush on Friday night, acknowledging that He sanctified our lives by giving us His mitzvahs, our sacred mission to fulfill His will here on earth. We declare, also, that God took us out of Egypt, bearing witness to the fact that He is interested in human affairs – and that He has a special bond with the Jewish people that infuses our lives with cosmic meaning and purpose. And we affirm that God created the world, testifying that the beauty and sheer engineering brilliance of the universe is His work, and that the world itself is purposeful, purpose-built by an awesome Being beyond our comprehension.
On Shabbat we remind ourselves why we are here and why God created the world. It is a day for remembering. “Remember the Shabbat day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We remember that there are certain basic truths of life embedded deep into our very being. Before our soul is sent down from up on high and placed into a body, we have absolute clarity. We know what is true and what is right. We know our purpose is. It is so clear to us that we are sent to this world to do good and serve God. But then, once we arrive here and get comfortable with our body, that clarity becomes clouded. We can so easily lose our moral compass, our clear sense of purpose. Remembering means reconnecting with those innermost truths, with our fundamental purpose and mission. Memory in its most profound sense is about rediscovering our essence, remembering who we really are.
And yet this is a world of forgetting. A world of distraction. With all the glittering objects and transitory experiences of this world, it’s easy to forget why we were sent here in the first place. But on Shabbat we remember. We remember that we are a soul clothed in a body and not a body that just happens to have a soul. We remember that the purpose of life is to do good, to accumulate mitzvot and carry out our Divine mission (Sfat Emet, Parshat Korach).
On Shabbat God blesses us with an extra dimension of our soul (Beitza 16a), and then our spiritual memory kicks in. We remember why we are here. We get clarity on our purpose in life. And that clarity gives us great comfort.
Shabbat is a response to the calling of our times. It gives us the answers to our deepest existential questions. And in just a few days, we will all have the opportunity to experience this in a profound way.
On November 6/7, the Shabbat Project will again be happening in more than 1,500 cities and 109 countries around the world. Every year, it brings together Jews of all ages and backgrounds and nationalities to keep one Shabbat together. 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 unique opportunity – a gift from God – to refocus our energies and make our homes the focal point of our Shabbat experience.
I would like to call on the entire Jewish world to come together in unity and experience the unique tranquility and spirituality of Shabbat – at home.
Shabbat truly is a gift. And now is our chance to seize it.
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.