It’s come to my attention that there are two national campaigns in progress to draw attention to Shabbat this week.  The National Jewish Outreach Program has declared this coming Friday night and Saturday the 15th annual Shabbat Across America.  And Reboot is spearheading its second National Day of Unplugging from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday.  

When I first heard about Shabbat Across America a few years ago, I must admit, I was a bit confused.  After all, Shabbat happens every week.  It’s not something I normally think of as an annual event.  And it happens all over the world, not just America.  So what’s so special about this Shabbat that it’s been declared a national holiday?  What are the different ways it can be marked?  And which of those will work for families with very young children or parents expecting their first?  

I don’t know how NJOP chose the date for a continent-wide celebration of Shabbat, but the fact that hundreds of Jewish communities have signed on to participate certainly goes a long way towards making this Shabbat special.  I am reminded of the suggestion (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, 1,1) that if all the people of Israel were to observe one Shabbat, the Messiah would come.  There is power in shared experience, in connecting with community, in knowing that regardless of how many people we are physically with in the moment, we are connecting with a broader community spanning a wide range of geographical space as well as generations both past and future.  If that were all there was, it could be a powerful experience.  But I think there’s more to this event than simple shared experience.  

It’s fitting that Shabbat Across America coincides with this week’s Torah reading.  This week we conclude the book of Exodus with the conclusion of the building of the Tabernacle, the sanctuary that traveled with the Israelites in the desert, the Jewish people’s first centralized sacred space.  Over the past several weeks, we’ve been reading in great detail about all the work, generosity, commitment, talent, skill, and communal cooperation it took to create this place which, once complete, draws the people together in order to experience the divine.  But in the process of construction, it draws the people together in the shared project of building that space for themselves and for future generations.  

In The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls Shabbat a sanctuary in time.  He explains that while the first Shabbat of creation is holiness in its purest form, holy space is a human construct that comes out of a human impulse to worship a tangible thing.  
Over time, the emphasis in Jewish life has swung between sacred space and sacred time.  In the times when there was a Temple in Jerusalem, centralized sacred space played a large part in the spiritual experience of the people.  In times of exile, Shabbat was able to travel with the Jews wherever they were.
With modernity, and the opportunity to live as part of mainstream, secular society, it’s gotten easier and easier to fall out of sync with sacred time, to live according to the general calendar.  A few generations ago, Jewish communities began concentrating on sacred space again, creating institutions where Jewish life thrived; synagogues, schools, etc.  
The nice thing about sacred space is that it is there for you when you need it, whenever you feel moved.  The down side is that without regular patterns of sacred time, we may never feel moved, and may feel alienated when we need it.  It starts to seem that Jewish life happens in particular places, and we tend to forget that it can happen wherever we are.  We forget that the home has historically been a primary locus of Jewish life.  
Shabbat Across America encourages us to reconnect with sacred time, to stop and do Shabbat along with other Jews wherever they are, and wherever we are.  Why do we need sacred time?  I’ll turn again to Heschel, who compares the perspective of a society focused on space, for whom time becomes monotonous and devalued, to the Biblical view in which “There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”  If we don’t set aside time that is different, we are in danger of losing track of time altogether, of missing the special qualities of everyday moments, of feeling that it’s all the same.  

This concern rings particularly true to me as a parent of small children.  When I am on their time, their immediate demands take over.  On a vacation week, when preschool is closed, or when child-care falls through, I often feel the pace of life changing, becoming excruciatingly slow in some ways and maddeningly fast in others.  If I need to get anything done, I start multitasking around the kids.  I worry that I spend to much time, in parenting forum jargon, nak: nursing at the keyboard, literally or metaphorically.  It is easy to forget to appreciate how precious the moments are that I am spending with my kids, just as they are right now.  
When I do have child care, when I manage to work, I may end up spending a lot of the time I have with the kids getting them fed, dressed and to sleep.  I miss the time to play, to just focus on them.  
The answer: Shabbat, a time when I can’t multitask them, when I can pay attention to them, knowing that this time is precious, special, sacred.  By unplugging, as Jewish tradition teaches, and as the folks at Reboot are urging, I am able to be more fully present in the place where I actually am.  In contrast to Shabbat across America, which connects us spiritually with the entire continent, the National Day of Unplugging grounds us in the physical place where we really are.  Both have to do with sanctifying a day with intentionality, change in routine and shifting focus.  
But like the project of building a physical sanctuary, a sacred space, carving out sacred time takes a lot of work; ideally work that is shared among a family or community.  So how do we carve out that time in our lives?  How do we draw the boundaries to protect it?  How do we enrich that sacred time with meaningful moments and powerful experiences?  
One beautiful thing about this coming Shabbat Across America is that the National Jewish Outreach Program and synagogues around the country have done much of the work for us.  They have organized Shabbat dinners, and invited us as individuals, couples, and families to take part in the experience.  We can participate simply by searching for a participating community, signing up, and making it part of our schedule.  But what if, for whatever reason, there isn’t an organized event that will work?  What if there’s not one close enough, or the schedule won’t fit into our kids’ daily routine, or at whatever state of pregnancy or infancy getting out to a community event just isn’t feasible?  And what about the rest of the year, when we’re left to make Shabbat special on our own?  NJOP has some suggestions and guidelines for celebrating Shabbat at home that may be helpful, and Reboot offers ten principles for slowing down in their Sabbath Manifesto.  
I have some suggestions as well for how emerging families can make Shabbat special this week and as a regular practice.  

1.   Prepare – Space becomes sacred because of the experiences that happen there, because it is set aside for a particular purpose.   Time becomes sacred because of what we do or do not use it for.  In order to make Shabbat special, we need to prepare.  First we need to get done anything that we do not want to have to pay attention to during Shabbat.  Wrap up projects that are calling to be done, come to a stopping point in your work, answer important emails, so that you don’t have to think about them.  Preparation can also help us appreciate the different nature of the day, to facilitate the experiences we want to have.  Maybe this means straightening up or cleaning the house, dressing in special clothes, buying or gathering flowers, or doing a pre-Shabbat art project with the kids.  

2.   Stop rushing – Parents’ lives can feel very busy.  It can seem like we’re always running late, rushing kids to get moving, needing to change a diaper when we’re about to walk out the door.  People who are not yet parents are busy too with work, school, or other commitments.  However you structure Shabbat for your family, when it starts, give yourself permission to just be, to do what you need to do, to experience time without the need to control it.  So what if dinner is a little bit later than expected?  Maybe bed-time happens a little bit later.  It’s okay.  Traditionally, Shabbat begins with candle lighting.  This can be a ritual of release from rushing.  The family can gather to light candles, say the blessing, then take a deep breath, breathe in the calm, the permission to take time as it comes, and wish each other a Shabbat Shalom, a peaceful Shabbat, while appreciating the glow of the candle light.  

3.   Eat a special dinner together as a family – Plan a special family meal on Friday night.  What makes it special is up to you.  Maybe you will prepare foods you particularly like, or maybe you’ll give yourself a break and order in.  Maybe the table will be set differently in honor of the occasion, or maybe you’ll ban smartphones from the meal.  Maybe you’ll introduce a ritual to check in and reflect on the week with your family.  Or maybe you’ll make the meal special by eating with friends, or extended family.  My three-year-old, Zalmen, asks every week, “Will we have guests?”  “Will we be guests?”  Who will be the guests?”  Actually, we’ve had melt-downs over the occasional lack of guests, but the point is sharing Shabbat with others can feel really special for us and for children.  

4.   Bless the challah, the wine, and your children – The Friday night meal traditionally starts with blessings over wine and challah.  Taking the time to appreciate the food we have to eat is one way of being present in the moment.  Challah and grape juice feel like special treats for children as they grow and notice the weekly pattern.  The ritual around eating these special foods enhances the special experience.  

And while we’re appreciating the blessings in our lives, there are blessings for our children as well.  Many Jews today feel uncomfortable giving a blessing, and even more uncomfortable if they have to make it up.  The traditional blessing for girls begins “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” the four matriarchs, each with her own particular strengths and her own role in molding the Jewish people.  For boys the blessing begins “May God make you like Efraim and Menashe,” Joseph’s sons, the first example in the Torah of brothers who get along with each other.  The blessing for sons and daughters continues with the blessing the priests in the Temple used to give all the Jewish people, “May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s presence shine on you and be gracious to you.  May God turn towards you and bring you peace.”  This blessing expresses a hope that our children be enthusiastic members of the Jewish people, that they be blessed with safety, ease,confidence, and peace.  It’s a good blessing.  

Some parents add their own particular blessing as well.  It’s an opportunity to think about what it is that you wish most for your child, what you would give them if you could give them anything.  If you are expecting a child, or if you have a new baby, it’s a good time to start thinking about what you would want to bless them with.  Maybe you’ll make it explicit with a personal blessing you offer them each Friday night.  Or maybe you’ll develop your own understanding of what the traditional blessing means to you.  We have many opportunities, as our children grow, to bless them, with our words and with our actions.  And if we start when they’re very young, there’s a chance they will internalize blessing we give them each Friday night  and treasure it as they grow into whoever they will be.  

5.   Sing – Shabbat is a day to enjoy, to have fun.  No matter what you think of your own voice, children love music and babies love hearing their parents sing.  And the reaction your baby gives you when you sing for him or her can melt your heart and lift your spirit.  So make time to sing on Shabbat, after dinner at the table, during the bed time routine or anytime during the day.  You can choose traditional Shabbat songs or set aside some of the songs you particularly love as special for Shabbat.  Why not start singing your baby Shabbat songs while you’re pregnant?  You may find that your baby is born loving Shabbat!

6.   Give yourself permission to be in the moment – We’ve become a society of expert multi-taskers.  Take some time to uni-task.  Focus on your family, your partner, your children, yourself.  Plan to do something together, or let the day take its own course, but whatever you do, give it all of your attention.  You’ll enjoy the day more and your children will appreciate your full presence.  

7.   Find a way to relax – Giving your children all your attention can take a lot of energy.  Take turns with your partner napping.  Take a relaxing bath.  Do some family yoga.  Put your kids in a stroller or carrier and go for a walk.  Make it a priority to have some time in your day where you feel refreshed, and renewed, so that when you leave your sanctuary in time and return to your everyday routine, you feel ready to bring a taste of this way of being into your week.  It feels natural during pregnancy to set aside time to take care of yourself.  It can be hard to remember to maintain the routine once the baby is born, but it’s worth the effort to help you appreciate your time, yourself and your family.  

If you didn’t grow up with a practice of Shabbat, taking on the tradition can seem daunting.  And if you did grow up with Shabbat, but your experience is different from your partner’s, you’ll have to sort out what Shabbat will look like in your shared home.  In any case, this Shabbat, Shabbat Across America, The National Day of Unplugging, could be a step towards establishing a practice that really fits the family you are building.  Pregnancy and early parenthood are powerful times to be thinking about family traditions.  These are times when we are full of hopes and dreams for our children, when they are full of potential and open to what we have to offer them, when we are highly aware of the values we hope to teach them, the ways we hope to nurture them, and who we hope to become as a family.  What better time to determine how we will do Shabbat?  
This Shabbat does not have to be perfect.  It can be a step along the way, a trial run.  With time and with many trial runs, each family can develop its individual take on the Shabbat tradition, which will grow and change as the family matures.  Why not take this week to start the work of carving out some weekly sacred time to fill with special routines, refreshing moments, full attention and appreciation for the people with whom we share our lives?  


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