Exhorting listeners to repossess Shabbat, create a relationship with G-d, and reconnect with family, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union, delivered the keynote and final lecture on May 6th at an NCSY community wide event at the Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst, entitled Spiritual Solutions: Guiding Our Children Through Today’s Greatest Challenges.
Pointing out that we have to be “consciously aware” of the special gift of the Shabbat that G-d gave us, Weinreb said that it is a great gift that we don’t appreciate enough. He had the audience close their eyes and bring up images related to the blessing of Havdala: the difference between light and dark, Yisrael and the nations, the seventh day and the six days of activity, between holiness and the mundane. Part of the problem in reconnecting is 20th century man’s disconnect from nature, explained Weinreb, working in an office with only a clock to tell time. He said that nature is fundamental to our religion, that “our G-d is a G-d of nature,” with Mincha as the sun sets and Shacharit as the sun rises.
Weinreb also stressed that he doesn’t like the term “Hashem,” saying that it is a barrier. “You can get to G-d through His world,” he said. “It is difficult to connect to G-d with ‘the name.’” Other terms for G-d foster closeness, he said, such as the Aibeshter (the one above), or other terms in Yiddish—the merciful One, sweet Father in Heaven, or in Hebrew—Av Harachamim (merciful Father), Avinu Malkainu (our Father our King). “Forget about (the term) ‘Hashem,’” he said. “It’s not a way to create a relationship.” We distance ourselves from G-d that way, he explained.
Rabbi Weinreb stressed that the principal focus of Shabbat is not on the “nos”-not driving, not turning on a light, not texting, but about G-d as creator of the Universe, all powerful, the Almighty. “That is why we make Kiddush,” explained Weinreb. That G-d created the world yesh mayayin–ex nihilo-out of nothing, and then stopped, “that’s why we stop,” he stressed. “Friday night we have to get in touch with that majesty. The first thing G-d did that wasn’t creative was He stopped, blessed and sanctified. Our essence as human beings is that we are created in G-d’s image. He created and we have powers to create. We can make fire, written languages, buildings, sew, we have 39 kinds of creativity. To continue to imitate G-d, we stop creating when He stopped. It’s a different perspective.”
He noted that at a panel discussion at Yeshiva University the question was asked, “When was the last time G-d was mentioned in your curriculum?” The assumption, he noted, is that all the learning we are studying is G-d’s will, and yet he points out numerous examples of hypocrisy, those who forgot about G-d and cheat the government, abuse children, beat their spouse. “If we don’t worship G-d in joy, with the goodness of our hearts, with youthfulness, we are open to terrible things,” he stressed. He said Shabbat should be observed with excitement and emotion; “the worst thing is to do it by rote, break through the horrible Shabbat imprisonment.” He already heard those complaining of the long summer Shabbatot and the upcoming three-day Yom Tov of Shavuot. He stressed the importance of learning Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with children and in general on Shabbat afternoons through the summer, noting that there are many creative books on Pirkei Avot geared to children.
Depending on the ages of the children and a family’s traditions, there are many strategies available to convey the appreciation of Shabbat. The most important: preparation. “Nobody gets a spiritual epiphany in a flash,” he emphasized. “It’s from toil, preparing. You get a spiritual high from Pesach after you clean your house, buy and cook the food, make matzoh, and when you sit at the Seder, with siyato dishmaya (help of Heaven) you have a spiritual experience.”
The preparation for Shabbat begins with Havdalah, Rabbi Weinreb explained, noting that on Sunday morning the prayers include a Psalm where we begin the count to the next Shabbat. We start to prepare for Shabbat early in the week, putting aside special foods for Shabbat throughout the week. “The more you invest the more your reap,” he pointed out. “If you want a Shabbat experience, you have to prepare. The tactics are your’s to invent. There are millions of ways to prepare; part B is the children, part A is ourselves. One way of dealing with burnout of the entire weekday, as boring and painful as it is, it stops at TGIF. The Jew thanks G-d” for each day closer to Shabbat. The second step is making it special with things designated for Shabbat, a white shirt, a white tablecloth, favorite foods, special prayers. He noted that 120 years ago this same problem confronted Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch; in his book Foundations of Education, Hirsch mentioned the need to teach others the joy in doing mitzvoth (commandments).
Weinreb cited the story of a woman who only interacted on Facebook and had 87,000 Facebook friends, but her death at age 87 went undetected for five months; the police found her body after a neighbor notice a large pile of mail by her door. “The danger of technology is that it dehumanizes us,” said Weinreb, “we have a desperate loneliness, no hugging, kissing or crying on shoulders.” On Shabbat, in shul “we reconnect with family and our Creator, we have social connections, we rehumanize the dehumanized parts of ourselves, reclaiming Shabbos.”
“This was a good first step,” said Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, Regional Director of New York NCSY. He said that about 200 people attended the sessions. “People were very excited and inspired. We have an obligation to build on this. It can’t be the end. There are a lot of different challenges.”
When asked to describe the focus and purpose of the conference, Rabbi Lightstone said that they are “working together as a community for solutions and strategies to reconnect and reengage our teens and our families with practical steps for Shabbat, Tefilah and communication. We are changing the paradigm from our kids being takers to being givers with chesed, Torah and Shabbat. It takes a lot to entertain a kid who just shows up. They need to have real ownership of the event. Learning can’t be passive, we can never beat movies—they are too good for us. We are empowering the kids. That’s the largest commonality that came through.”
Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, noted author and lecturer, and Rav of Khal Bais Yitchok in Brooklyn, pointed to the obligation of parents to be role models. When davening, he stressed, they should know the words and the nusach. We have to raise our game if we want out kids to follow in our footsteps, he explained.
Another speaker stressed the importance of having the children appreciate the Shema prayer as a basis, not to have a double standard between behavior in the home and outside, to show love and to communicate love continuously and live by example, said Mrs. Estee Lightstone. “You can’t expect kids to say thank you if you don’t say thank you to your spouse,” she explained.
Another session dealt with hypocrisy. “It turns kids off,” said Leah Pariser, a teacher of Jewish History at SKA High School. If the words aren’t true, kids “don’t know how to navigate the world in and outside the home.”
Participants called the program “phenomenal,’ “beyond amazing,” and “inspiring.”
“It’s the follow-through,” stressed Rabbi Lightstone. “We are looking for a long lasting ramification for a cultural shift in the community.”