Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Shabbos Deserves Better

Since the dawn of Jewish history, Shabbos has been the bedrock of our existence and identity as a people.

Jews who are Shomrei Shabbos and those who aren’t may share the same spiritual and ethnic roots but they inhabit different universes. Those who are loyal to the Torah and its precepts refrain from working on Shabbos. They see Shabbos as an ultimate gift from G-d to the Jewish people that occupies a central place in our lives—not only on Shabbos, but a whole week They can’t imagine life without the spiritual replenishment of Shabbos.Jews who feel G-d’s presence seven days a week feel it ever more intensely on Shabbos. They honor Shabbos in their every action, thought and word. Shabbos in their homes is something you perceive with all your senses. You can smell it, see it, hear it, taste it, touch it.

A yid who is Shomer Shabbos can not be enticed to live differently. Jews hungered and lived in abject poverty rather than compromise their fidelity to Shabbos. We all know the stories of the Jews who came to this country at the turn of the last century escaping pogroms, pestilence and disease. When they went looking for work many were told that if they didn’t show up on Saturday they shouldn’t bother coming back on Monday; their job would be handed over to some other hapless immigrant.

I remember attending the levayeh of my grandfather in Fall River, Mass. I remember looking out at the vast Jewish cemetery in that New England town once home to thousands of Jews. It was a huge cemetery and there was something strange about it; as I stood there looking out at the property, it appeared to be two cemeteries with a large swath of empty land separating them. The area where my grandparents are buried is markedly smaller than the other.

I asked the Chazan the reason for the demarcation line. His response was that this was the Shabbosdiker Beis Olam, the other, larger one, was the Vochidiker Beis Olam. The circumstances were not conducive to a more lengthy explanation, and though I felt dumb not knowing what in the world he was talking about I waited until the end of the kevurah to ask my father what in the world was a Shabbosdiker and a vochidker beis olam. He explained that the Shabbosdiker was for niftarim who held on to Shabbos with great mesirus nefesh. The Vochidiker was for those who couldn’t.

His words made such a striking impression on me. They drove home to this young American boy the awesome battle that Jews had to wage in years past for the right to observe Shabbos. Our flourishing Torah communities today owe their existence to these Jews.

That’s how it was in those days. The temptation was great, poverty was rampant, the children were cold and hungry; what was a Jew to do? Those who held fast and observed Shabbos held on to their children and families and were laid to rest in the Shabbosdiker beis olam.

It is not for us, in a new world a century later, who speak the language, live comfortably in heated homes, and are blessed with a five-day work week, to judge those who had nothing.

Who knows how we would have responded to the challenges they faced? Are we so certain that we would have passed the excruciating tests of hunger, poverty and destitution? Boruch Hashem we are not faced with their choices. Thank G-d we are not confronted with such harsh temptations. We take for granted that we and everyone in our safe and comfortable world are Shomer Shabbos.

If it would cost us an extra $100 to keep Shabbos, would we hesitate even a moment? If it cost us $500, would we be tempted to trample on the holy Shabbos? How about $1,000 or $10,000? Of course not. There is no question, no doubt. Would you miss an event you really wanted to attend if getting there involved chillul Shabbos? Of course. What’s the question?

Despite the ease with which we can observe Shabbos today, we have a different kind of challenge that tests our love and allegiance to this holy day
Gedolim have called for a boycott of El Al because the airline’s top management did not honor an agreement to avoid flying on Shabbos. Do we really have to know all the details? Is it important for each of us to know the minutia of the negotiations? Is it really that difficult for us to fly on a different airline until the matter is settled? Should a minor cancellation fee dilute our commitment and stop us from proclaiming the supremacy of Shabbos over all material considerations?

Shabbos is our declaration that G-d created the world and nothing that occurs is by happenstance. Shabbos proclaims that the G-d who created the world looks out for and protects those who bear His message.

Today, more than ever, as our enemies arm themselves with the most powerful arms known to man and lust for our blood, we have to remind ourselves that it is only the One above who can protect us from their evil designs. Our only weapons against our adversaries are weapons of the spirit. Meticulous honoring of Shabbos is one such powerful weapon.

The sight of chillul Shabbos should deeply disturb us. Walking onto an airplane with Hebrew letters adorning its side, knowing that it profaned the Shabbos, should give us pause. It should hurt us. The airline’s owners are carefully gauging the response of the religious community as they sit down to decide policy. When visibly religious Jews board one of their planes it sends a message that they are indifferent to the trampling of the Shabbos and that they don’t feel its pain. That will undoubtedly encourage El Al to widen the breach and to steadily chip away at the sanctity of Shabbos with further encroachments.

When you cross that threshold into the fuselage, it is as if you have taken a Sefer Torah, thrown it on the ground and walked on it for your convenience.

It’s not that often that we are tested like this and called upon to proclaim our fidelity to Shabbos. Now that we have been, let’s not shirk our responsibility.

Let us all rise as Shabbosdiker yidden and announce without any shame that the value of kedushas Shabbos is not open to debate, negotiation and/or compromise.