The Present of Presence: Coming Together for Shabbat

In Vayekel, this week’s Torah portion,we read that Moshe  assembles the people of Israel and tells them the details of what is needed to build the tabernacle. The rest of the portion discusses all of the giving and the artisans who set out to build the tabernacle. But before Moshe talks about the tabernacle he reiterates the commandment to observe the Shabbat. There we read:

And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whosoever does any work therein shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.’  ( Exodus 35:1-3)

In the Gemara in Shabbat this juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the tabernacle is the root of 39 types of work used in making the tabernacle are categories of prohibited behavior on Shabbat. On another level , what is the connection between building the tabernacle, Shabbat, and assembling people?

In thinking about this question I recall one of favorite camp Shabbat stories.

As the story goes, there was an old age home by Machaneh Yehudah, the famous outdoor Shuk (market) in Jerusalem. In this facility there was one specific ward for bedridden men. In this room there was Dr. Davidoff the retired editor of a local Newspaper, Mr. Goldstein a retired music producer, Mr. Cohen who used to work in Machaneh Yehudah as street sweeper, Dr. Schaffzin who had been the doctor in a teaching hospital, Mr. Schwartz who was a well-regarded tailor in his day and Rabbi Weiss an extremely old local Rabbi. All of the men were old, incapacitated and had no visitors. Their loving wives had passed and their children lived far away. They were isolated and had only each other.

In their room, they had only one window and the way the beds were configured, there was only one bed that could see out of this window. In this bed was the revered Rabbi Weiss. Every day the good Rabbi would regale his roommates with stories of what he saw from his bed. As much as he loved to tell them of the weather and all of the comings and goings of the outside world, they would love to listen. And as much as they enjoyed his daily updates, they all longed for Friday. Every Friday Rabbi Weiss would tell them about the children running to get Marzipan, the couples buying their Challah, the busy Hummus Guy making special Shabbat deals, the people buying different seasonal Fresh fruit, husbands getting bottles of grape juice, wives getting chicken, and grandparents getting special candy for Shabbat. All of the men were so excited by the rabbi’s description of Shabbat preparation that they hardly noticed the fact that he basically had nothing to say on Saturday itself, due to the shuk being closed for Shabbat.

Sadly as most old people do, Rabbi Weiss passed away on a Saturday night.  On the following Sunday the group mourned the loss of their friend and rabbi. But by nightfall they had already started to discuss who was going to get his coveted bed. A debate ensued and each person made their argument for why they should get the bed with the view of the Shuk. Mr. Davidoff said, I was the editor of the local Newspaper and I know how to tell stories, I should get the bed. He was followed by Mr. Goldstein who had a successful career in music production. He argued that he knew how to compose beautiful moments, he should get the bed. In response, Mr. Cohen said, “ I used to work in Machaneh Yehuda as street sweeper and I know all the ins and outs of what happens on Friday, I should get the bed.”  As a matter of fact, Dr. Schaffzin made his claim for the bed. The doctor said, “I should have the bed because I spent my career teaching people how to see the intricacies of the human body, surely I can handle the shuk.” And finally Mr. Schwartz said, “ Others might know the Shuk better than me but their vision is limited. While I cannot walk or sow anymore I still can see as clear as on my Bar Mitzvah day, I should get the bed.”

After each person got through saying why he should be the one, they decided that it would only made sense to vote and Mr. Schwartz, the local tailor, won the bed with the coveted view. With the help of the staff Mr. Schwartz moved into Rabbi Weiss’s bed on Monday. After all of the debates the other men assumed that he would start telling stories right away, but on his first day in the new bed Mr. Schwartz was silent. Just like Monday, on Tuesday he stayed quiet, simply staring out the window. No one said anything as they assumed that like themselves, Mr. Schwartz was still mourning the death of Rabbi Weiss.  When he was still quiet on Wednesday the other men started to get grumpy and finally on Thursday they started yelling at Mr. Schwartz. Do your job! Why did you want the bed so much? Let me have the bed if you will not talk! And then it happened. On Friday, Mr. Schwartz started to talk. And just like the rabbi before him, he reported on children running to get Marzipan, the couples buying their Challah, the busy Hummus Guy making special Shabbat deals, the people buying different seasonal fresh fruit, husbands getting bottles of grape juice, wives getting chicken, and grandparents getting special candy for Shabbat. But seeing that his vision was so much better then Rabbi Weiss, he shared even more details. The men were thrilled with their choice of Mr. Schwartz. And Mr. Schwartz, for his part, was satisfied and confident in his fulfilling the duty he inherited from his dear rabbi. None of Mr. Schwatz’s roommates, he was now sure, would ever find out that this coveted bed did not actually overlook Machaneh Yehudah but only a brick wall.

With the passing of Rabbi Weiss, Mr. Schwartz was charged with making Shabbat for his friends. I realize for most people it is not so black and white, but what would it mean to feel an obligation to make the Sabbath holy for yourself and others? Untethered by the virtual “connections” of social media Shabbat in the 21st Century is a unique present of  presence. There is no meaning like the meaning we make for each other when we come together.

– Thank you Simmy Cohen for the help and inspiration.

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