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Toward Shabbat: Vayeshev

On a good night, in the midst of our despair trying to rock a crying baby back to sleep at 3:00 AM, either my husband, Jeremy, or I will laugh and say something along the lines of, “newborns are strange little creatures.” Newborns have to learn how to eat, how to sleep, and even how to breathe. And yet, we love them. Our love for them has nothing to do with what they are capable of doing. We love and value them just because they are a new life; we value them simply for being.

As we get older, it often feels as if being is not enough. Society tells us that our worth is bound up with what we are capable of producing. We measure our success by how much we were able to accomplish on a given day. We live our lives trying to be as productive as possible piling onto our busy schedules, crossing off item after item on our never ending “to-do” lists. We read books and listen to podcasts about how we can reach peak productivity. It feels like the more we do, the more we are. 

This is why we need Shabbata holy day when we are commanded to stop. God, The Ultimate Doer, rested, and so we too stop what we are doing and live without worrying about being productive. Shabbat demands that we step away from doing and step into being. In his book The Jewish Way: Living The Holidays, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg captures this sentiment while defining the essence of Shabbat:

Through Shabbat, Jewish tradition proposes a dialectical movement: to put aside the acts of creation and the products of work and to refocus on the sacredness of the human being. This is achieved by spending the entire day of Shabbat on being, not doing. It is a proclamation, “I am, not I do.” If I could do nothing, I would still be me, a person of value. Thus the individual reasserts the primacy of human existence, “unjustified” by productivity.

Shabbat tells us that we are more than what we did or did not do this past week and that we are more than what we will do or not do in the coming week. Detached from anything we produce, each one of us is sacred just for being alive, just for being human. Shabbat pushes us to remember our priorities, that we are worthy just for being. This Sunday night, we will take our hannukiyot out of the cupboards and begin to bask in the glow of Hanukkah. After lighting our candles and making our blessings, there is the tradition of singing or reciting the liturgical paragraph הנרות הללו which ends with the following words: 

.וכל שמונת ימי חנוכה, הנרות הללו קודש הן, ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהן אלא לראותן בלבד, כדי להודות לשמך, על נפלאותיך ועל ניסיך ועל ישועתך

And all eight days of Hanukkah these lights are sacred, and we are not allowed to use them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvations.

One of the most inspiring parts of the Hanukkah tradition is that the Hanukkah candles are only there for our enjoyment—according to halakha (Jewish law), we are not supposed to do any work for at least the first 30 minutes they are burning, nor are we allowed to derive any benefit from them. These candles should not be used as light for the room or to keep us warm; rather they are there to be sacred and to reveal the light that God shines upon us in the darkest days of winter. These eight small candles remind us that being gives us the ability to open our eyes to the miracle and wonder of life within us and around us. 

As we move toward Shabbat and then into Hanukkah, may the sacred pause of Shabbat and the holy lights of Hanukkah uncover the Divine spark planted deep within each of us the moment we came into this world, illuminating our inherent worth.