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November 20, 2017 2:53 pm

The Shabbat Project: A Movement of Unity, Peace and Connection

avatar by Warren Goldstein / JNS.org

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Hurricanes brought havoc on Houston, South Florida and Puerto Rico, among other places. Earthquakes devastated Mexico. Las Vegas endured the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Yet in these times of crisis and pain, we have also witnessed some of mankind’s most admirable attributes: kindness, empathy, determination and unity. As disparate communities around the world banded together to assist the most vulnerable among us, I was reminded of how our sages describe the ultimate state of unity — “like one person with one heart.”

We humans are brought together through external trauma, whether it be natural or man-made.

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Yet healing must be about more than unity. To survive and thrive daily, victims and volunteers alike — and those who fall into neither category — need to experience life’s simple, yet profound gifts. Most prominent among them are a sense of inner peace, and genuine human connection. And there is nothing in our lives that better allows us to experience these gifts than Shabbat.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, using a phrase coined by Joseph Addison, the 17th-century British poet, spoke of Shabbat as “stealing a day out of life to live.” This is the special spirit of Shabbat.

On a day in which many of our routines are restricted — going to work, writing, cooking, driving cars, turning on lights and activating electrical appliances, etc. — we can discover that these restrictions are actually liberating; that it is the things we can’t do on Shabbat that free us up to do the things we can.

Rather than impeding our enjoyment or creating inconvenience, these regulations can actually create the magic and inspiration of the Shabbat experience.

Day in and day out, in order to make it through this world, we spend so little time actively connecting. The pace of modern life, and the tasks and responsibilities that consume us from morning until evening, are an intrusion; they prevent us from real connections with our family and friends, with God, and with ourselves.

By giving us peace and tranquility — and diminishing the ever-present noise of the outside world — the restrictions of Shabbat liberate us. At the Shabbat dinner and lunch table, for example, no one has to answer the phone or rush off in the car somewhere. No one is distracted by the screens of information and entertainment that saturate the modern world.

Or take the prohibition on driving, which frees us to genuinely connect as we walk together side by side, instead of talking into the car speakerphone as we negotiate traffic.

We live in a world that has become a constant feed of digital information. With marvels of modern technology at our fingertips at any given moment, we remain glued to our devices, and cling to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — as if our lives depended on them.

But Malcolm Gladwell, one of today’s most influential thinkers, asserts that modern technology might not be the key ingredient to everyday success — or to transformative social revolutions.

True, the “Arab Spring” upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the Arab world are widely believed to have been sparked by social media. But in a 2010 article for The New Yorker, Gladwell examines episodes that illustrate a different narrative: the so-called “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova in 2009, and the student uprising in Iran a few months later.

In a piece titled “Small Change — Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” he notes that the role of social media was negligible in both instances. Changing the world through social media alone, he argues, is unlikely — because the ties between social media users are generally very weak.

Instead, real social change is achieved through the bonds that exist between friends and family. To illustrate this phenomenon, Gladwell looked at the Civil Rights Movement — specifically at how the mass “sit-ins” at facilities reserved for whites mushroomed into a nationwide protest against segregation that changed the face of America.

Since I introduced the Shabbat Project in 2013 in South Africa, this worldwide call for Jews to keep a single Shabbat has grown exponentially.

From October 27-28, this year’s Shabbat Project drew more than 1 million participants from across 1,416 cities and 97 countries. It has been nothing short of thrilling and deeply inspiring to watch this movement grow, as Jews come together across every conceivable divide — language, culture, ethnicity, geography and observance.

Fittingly, the unity of the Shabbat Project was on full display in the places that are currently most in need of an uplifting experience. Whether it was Houston, Las Vegas, Mexico City or other sites of recent traumatic events, Shabbat Project activities served as a refuge and a safe haven, as well as a platform to bring communities together in genuine moments of connectedness.

The emphasis was not on destruction, but creation — or, more precisely, on the day when God halted creation and commanded us to rest, and to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. In these turbulent times, we need Shabbat more than ever.

The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder of the International Shabbat Project.

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