One summer night a few months back I was sitting out in the backyard at my parents’ house. It was Shabbat, and I was just enjoying the moment. Something about summer nights in the backyard have a way of bringing me back, and getting in touch with myself; who I am when the world isn’t trying to get its hold on me. And it occurred to me, ‘This moment has been brought to you by Shabbat.’
Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath. It is commonly defined as “a day of rest,” but rest in the sense of Shabbat has a very specific meaning. There are several guidelines as to what constitutes “work,” all of which is activity that an observer of Shabbat abstains from on Shabbat. Much of this work has to do with activities that characterize the weekday, such as abstaining from buying or selling, or driving a car. But “work” also constitutes simpler actions, such a writing, cutting, or tying a (permanent) knot.
So I asked myself how I would describe this moment, or what lesson would I want to impart from this moment, and I think it’s a rather important one: PAUSE long enough and often enough, and you just might notice H-shem.
The contemporary world has devolved into a mindless, mad frenzy, but right here in our own tradition, we pose an affront to this mad frenzy, and this affront is something that is as important to our tradition as is Shabbat.
In my own life, I’ve been forced to confront this question of what does being traditional look like when done right. And there is so much our Torah has right.
I think about how our way of life fosters appreciation. We say a bracha blessing before we eat, after we use the facilities, when we wake up in the morning, before we go to sleep, etc. We are extremely mindful about what we consume, to the point that we are even careful about the kitchens we prepare our food in and the tableware we use to eat. In Judaism this is called kashrut.
Kashrut encompasses a whole set of laws regarding what foods we are allowed to eat, how that food must be prepared, and what tableware we use to serve the food. In contemporary society, there isn’t much outside of being ‘productive’ that is meant to warrant thought. As a matter of fact, the whole system has been streamlined to require as little thought as possible. But when our tradition is done right, our minds are very present in our respective everyday lives.
As someone who has always tried to keep to myself, to avoid the spotlight, and has been repelled by the arrogance of others, I’ve had a keen appreciation for the attention our tradition has for modesty. We have adherence to tsnius that establishes parameters for keeping our bodies off public display, and a standard that we not show physical affection in front of the world, in order to make it known that some things are special. The attitude of tsnius in Judaism encompasses guidelines for what a Jew should keep out of public sight, for the sake of achieving a certain standard of modesty.
The Torah lifestyle imparts this ethic of not reducing people to their bodies, and that the person is what’s inside the body (the person is really beyond the body, if you want to get that deep into it). In contrast to the larger culture where your business is everyone’s business and the line between our private and public affairs are regularly breached, blurred, and violated, in Judaism (when done right), you are entitled and encouraged to be a private person, and I love that!
Wabi-sabi is a term the Japanese use to identify a certain aesthetic that notices the imperfect, crooked, crumpled, mangled, and aged quality we encounter in nature and (traditional Japanese wabi-sabi) craftwork that makes it interesting, and most of all, beautiful. The concept shouldn’t be too foreign for any Jew who has ever walked into a sukkah and noticed how beautiful it is, and noticed that it’s beautiful precisely because it lacks the immaculateness, exquisiteness, and ‘perfection’ that dictates the laws of beauty outside of Sukkot.
Sukkot is a holiday that is characterized by the building of a rudimentary, temporary hut called a sukkah. The sukkah is like the kind of dwelling our nomadic ancestors typically inhabited in the desert. During the holiday of Sukkot, all meals are eaten in the sukkah. The sukkah is beautiful precisely because it’s a bunch of leaves, branches, and tarp thrown together to let the right amount of the outside seep in. It is a quieter beauty and a very immaterial beauty, and it is for that reason I think its beauty is also its importance, because there will always be human beings that need to be reassured of that.
The Jewish calendar is known to be full of holidays. There are so many holidays, that to the outside observer it can give the impression that that is what Judaism is, non-stop holidays. I suppose that would be a problem, if you haven’t yet realized that life is a holiday. The time we are with the people we care about the most, rejoicing together–that’s life. Life is supposed to be good. We’re not supposed to wait for a special occasion to enjoy life; life is the occasion. Our tradition (when done right) has a way of setting our priorities right, sometimes despite the pressures we are subjected to in contemporary society.
There is an important thread of commonality that runs through each of these points, and that is an awareness of our interconnectedness and interdependence with each other, the world, and our G-d. In a society such as the Bedouins I used to work with, there is hardly the same need for any such rules or rituals to reinforce this awareness, because they are already in a close-knit community where they live on the very land that they derive their sustenance from. It is remarkable the extent to which the Jewish lifestyle (when done right) is successful in replicating this awareness, even without the need for a setting such as that of the Bedouins I’ve met.
This is barely even a sampling of the immense value that can be found in our Torah heritage.
There are so many communities around the world that are trying to retain their ancestral traditions in a post-industrial world, where they have found their traditions increasingly nudged into obscurity. Most notably in America are the different Native American tribes, but such groups exist everywhere, all losing ground to blind progress and the pressure to fold into the bigger culture on the block. I enjoy learning about these native cultures, and I naturally find myself rooting for them and their efforts to preserve their heritage. Our heritage as Jews wouldn’t be considered endangered like some of these other groups, but it very easily can be. All it takes is for us to stop caring.
And as Jews that care, it would make sense for us to examine how frenzied our lives are, or how mindless, pointless, or heavily surveilled our lives are, and what is the cause. We should ask ourselves, what role does tradition play in the 21st century? What makes tradition relevant, and needed today? For people fleeing the abuses of contemporary society, shouldn’t tradition have something substantially different to offer?
We tend to find something romantic about people who still live according to their ancestral traditions in our own day and age. But most of us in today’s society still aren’t about to completely return to whatever tradition our last traditional ancestors let go of. We Jews have a tradition with an incredible amount of beauty that we should care enough about to preserve. From Megillat Esther that we recite on Purim, I draw motivation from Mordechai, and how he refused to bow before Haman. He defied the status quo, and he stood up to power. He wasn’t the first Jew to set this example, and he was far from the last.
In our own day and age, we too can rise to the call to not conform. That’s what Jewish tradition done right looks like. That’s what we need today.
About the Author
Clifton lives in Jerusalem, Israel. He continues to study and live Judaism and the Hebrew language. His interests include astrology, tradition, history, foreign language, linguistics, literature, calligraphy, cartooning, and community service. He uses his writing, as well as his fine art to channel his interests.