Several years ago, I was privileged to staff a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for Shorashim. From the moment I found out I’d be going, I was really looking forward to celebrating Shabbat in Israel again. Israel has so many sights to see, but there is something very special about leading a group of young adults through their first Shabbat in a place where the majority of people are also Jewish.
That’s not to say that all Israelis celebrate Shabbat in the same way, but across Israeli society, from the very secular to the ultra-Orthodox, I have noticed a profound awareness on Friday evening. When the sun begins to set, people know that something is different and Shabbat is coming.
As group leaders, we took special care to mark this important occasion for our group. There was time at the market in the afternoon to buy supplies and snacks for the day. We asked everyone to attend Shabbat blessings and dinner, and to wear something nice. We bought flowers for each of the men to offer each of the women as they arrived for dinner.
Our trip, as all Birthright Israel trips are, had already been full of life and despite having been there less than two days. The group was moving slowly as we checked into our rooms at the kibbutz where we would spend Shabbat. The participants let out a gracious sigh of relief that we made it in time to have a break in order to unpack, wash the sweat from our brows and unwind from a long day of traveling.
As the afternoon turned to evening, I remember the peace and quiet in the air at the kibbutz. Our group arrived for dinner looking refreshed; there was a special calming stillness in the air as everyone entered this holy space.
After the candles were lit, we asked each of our participants to share their favorite Shabbat memories. Many talked about going to Jewish camp in the summer, celebrating with loved ones at home or remembering happy times with relatives that had since passed. But one of the Israeli participants shared a time that he was serving in combat during the campaigns into Gaza. On Friday night, his unit was holed up in a bunker in the midst of the battle, bullets literally flying overhead and the sounds of explosions surrounding them. I tried to imagine being in that moment and thought all I would be able to do is duck, cover, and maybe even cry. Instead, this young man’s commander insisted that they all stop everything so that the unit could make kiddush together, the blessing over wine that sanctifies Shabbat. Our Israeli friend explained how important that ritual act was for everyone to normalize the experience for the entire unit.
The words of the kiddush remind us that Shabbat is about celebrating creation and acting as God did, by resting on the seventh day. However, the words of the kiddush also describe the exodus from Egypt. The great Rabbi and torah commentator Rashi suggested that God took the Jewish people out of Egypt for the very purpose of celebrating Shabbat. In Egypt, we were not given the choice of when to work and when not to work. In Egypt the Jews were not given a choice to practice their religion freely; however, once freed from slavery, religious observances such as Shabbat became a choice that Jews were then, as now, allowed to make.
Every week, from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, we as free Jews have a choice to stop and mark the holy Sabbath. That might mean something different to every Jew; the observance and customs for some will often look different from one to the next. Regardless, each of us has the ability to find our own way and meaning to stop, rest, separate the day from the rest of the week and exercise our freedom to choose.