We all know the familiar proverb, “Time is money.” But in many ways, time is not like money at all. One cannot accumulate time; one cannot borrow time; and one can never tell how much more time one has left in the Bank of Life. Time can certainly be wasted, as money can. We know that time well spent can yield returns far greater and more lasting than anything that money can buy. One might say that time is the most precious thing we have in life.
In his book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel compared the ancient pagans’ glorification and sanctification of space, with Judaism’s elevation and sanctification of time. The Sabbath, he writes, that most distinctive creation of the Jewish spirit, creates a “palace in time.” Through observing the Sabbath the Jew feels transported and uniquely connected to the divine.
How, exactly, is the Jew “transported” and connected to the divine on Shabbat? I want to bring this abstract idea to life with a story told by Rabbi David Hartman of blessed memory. Rabbi Hartman was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. I was fortunate to have had Rabbi Hartman as a professor in 1972 when I studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In honor of his tenth yahrzeit this year, “The Shalom Hartman Institute ” in Jerusalem, founded by Rabbi Hartman and named in memory of his father, put out a recording of an address he gave in 1995 at a Jewish Federation event in Washington DC. In it, he speaks of the transformative effect that the Sabbath had on his father:
Rabbi Hartman tells us that his parents were born in the yishuv, pre-state Palestine. His mother was from Tzfat, his father from Jerusalem. When they arrived in our county in 1929, relatives told them to forget about their ideas of the Sabbath. This was America. If you don’t work, you don’t eat, they told them. Here one works seven days a week, they told them. But his mother wisely insisted they keep the Sabbath day sacred. “Shalom”, said Rabbi Hartman’s mother to his father,, “The soul that we had when we lived in Jerusalem is gonna be the soul that we’re gonna have here, and this is how we’re gonna bring up the family.”
Rabbi Hartman’s father was a simple peddler in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood. Often when Rabbi Hartman, as a boy, would ask him for some money for ice cream or a small toy, his father had to say no because he didn’t have the money. Sometimes he did not even have enough money for challah for the Sabbath table. Rabbi Hartman says that his father felt himself inadequate as a provider, a failure economically. However I wonder if it was perhaps Rabbi Hartman himself who saw his father as inadequate. After all, how could he, as a boy, know how his father felt about his life?
And yet, when Shabbat came Rabbi Hartman saw his father transform and become a different person. His poverty, his humble work during the week, no longer appeared to define his sense of identity. On Shabbat, Rabbi Hartman saw his father in a different light, as a man of stature, of dignity. After sunset on Friday night, Rabbi Hartman’s father changed into his best clothes and he sat at the head of the table with a white tablecloth and the family’s finest dishes. He recited kiddush, washed his hands and said motzi. Rabbi Hartman’s mother would always serve him the head of the fish to symbolize that he was the head of the family. And after dinner he sang zemirot, Sabbath songs that he had heard from his father who had heard it from his father.
As a child, Rabbi Hartman says that he had very little patience for all that singing. Yet, looking back as an adult, he marveled at the profound sense of pride and sense of self-worth the observance of the Sabbath imbued in his father. He wondered, what gave this impoverished, down on his luck, barely surviving peddler the ability to see himself in a totally different spirit, to be inspired and uplifted by the Sabbath, “a space in time”.
What gave my father the ability to sing? he asked himself. The ability to pray? The ability to study? The ability not to be defined purely by the check he would bring home at the end of the week? How did he refashion himself from a man struggling to support a family to the spiritual being he became on Shabbat?
Perhaps our answer lies in another description of the power of the Sabbath by Heschel. He writes that the Sabbath is “the realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be ”. In other words, the Sabbath reminds us that what we own, what we can earn, is much less important than who we are. Our economic and social standing in the world take a back seat to the spiritual dimensions of our existence. The daily acts of justice and compassion, our performance of mitzvot and sacred deeds become the criteria by which we are measured and through which we measure ourselves. The Sabbath gives us the permission to cease our efforts, for one day a week, to shape our lives and to transform the world. On the Sabbath we can stop our work and we can sing, we can study, we can pray, we can share, we can reflect and we can love. One day a week we are commanded to cease from our labors and simply be. I think that is what transformed Rabbi Hartman’s father, in his eyes, from a poor, ordinary immigrant scratching out a living to the awe-inspiring spiritual giant, in Heschel’s worlds “transported by the Sabbath and connected to the divine”.
For a complete transcript of the speech, or to listen to the speech visit https://www.hartman.org.il/david-hartman-zl-on-living-a-spiritual-life-transcript/