On my first trip to Israel when I was 16 years old, I discovered, truly for the first time, the deepest and truest meaning of Shabbat, our Sabbath day. For years in America, I had adopted the traditions, attempted to follow the rules, but what was missing was the absolute depth and beauty of sharing that day with others in song, sharing meals, simply living in the moment. My family was not religious and so I was mostly on my own, sailing through the mechanics.
Only in Israel, sharing each Shabbat day with hundreds of other teenagers who were also enjoying the experience of Israel did I suddenly understand why the rules are what they are and how incredible a gift we as a people have been given.
While I was here, one Shabbat was shared with another group of kids. This one included girls who had recently been “converted” from Reform Judaism to Orthodoxy and the sudden plunge that they experienced was so very different from my slow and easy (and lonely) journey from Conservative Judaism to Orthodox. Though I understood that these girls had been quickly taught that they must be modest, I found their climbing under the blankets in an all-girls room to be a bit absurd, but I held back figuring, with all the superiority a 16 year old can muster, that they needed to be helped along and accepted, not criticized.
Later that night, after yet another amazing meal, hearing 300 kids singing and clapping and even dancing, I was not even a bit bothered the first time one of them complained that the last person out of the room, whoever that was, had forgotten to shut the light. So here we were, four girls in a room with a light on, while Jewish law forbade us from closing it during the Sabbath.
I accepted the situation and turned on my side, but this one girl said out loud, “Oh, it’s so hard to sleep with the light on.”
I closed my eyes and waited for sleep, “I just wish the light hadn’t been left on,” she said.
A few minutes later, “It’s just so hard to sleep with the light on, too bad it can’t be closed.”
And a few minutes later, “It’s so hard to sleep with the light on.”
And then somehow, a crazy thought entered my mind, “Are you hinting that we should shut the light?” I asked her as I sat up in bed and looked at her.
Such incredible relief filled her face with joy, “YES! My rabbi told me that I wasn’t allowed to turn the lights on and off but that I could hint to someone else to do it!”
I looked at her somewhat surprised myself and yet also relieved at having the mystery solved, “to a non-Jew,” I told her. “We can’t turn the lights on or off either.”
David is home for a long weekend. He’s talking about the army, funny stories, serious ones and I listen and smile. He’s happy. He looks amazing. He was so silly, so playful today. He hasn’t been home in more than 2 weeks and I’ve missed him a lot.
His grandmother asks him to tell her one good thing about being in the army, “You get a lot of exercise,” he answered.
“Where you are sleeping, is it air-conditioned?” I ask.
The answer is “sort of.” There are machines there, but to cut down on costs, the air conditioners automatically go off every two hours and then someone has to turn them back on. This works just fine during the week, but on the Sabbath, the air conditioners go off and can’t be turned back on…at least not by the Jewish soldiers in David’s unit.
And so they hinted and explained to a Druze soldier who had heard of such practices but never really experienced them. It took a few minutes but he finally understood what was needed after a sudden power outage cut the electricity. Quite willing to help his fellow soldiers, he turned the electricity back on…everyone thanked him.
Then, he smiled, closed the electricity, laughed and walked out of the room. A minute or two later, he came back in and turned it back on and everyone joined in the laughter.
Another soldier who serves in his unit is from Russia. He is not Jewish, though going through the conversion process. David said that on Friday in the middle of the night, the Russian soldier woke because it was very hot in the room. He got up and turned the air conditioner back on and then, thinking of the other soldiers, he went room to room to turn the air conditioners on again for the other soldiers.
Keeping the Sabbath is not always the easiest thing to do. Years ago, I found myself in Jerusalem and spent the night with the light on because it was Shabbat and I couldn’t turn the light back on. Now, so many years later, my son’s army life is made that much easier by two non-Jews – both of whom have volunteered to serve in the army.
We are commanded to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. This holy Shabbat, Davidi will be home to share in it with us. He left a short time ago to visit his friends. I’ve got corned beef boiling on the stove top; chicken cooling in the oven. Soon I’ll make the dough for the challah and leave it to rise overnight.
Years before my first trip, I knew that I wanted to live in Israel; now, as I watch my son and hear the stories he tells me about his life in the army over the last two weeks, I smile. I wish I could go back and whisper in my 16 year old year…have faith, you’ll get back here; you’ll raise your children here and they will be everything you dreamed of and so many things you never imagined.Paula Stern