Photo Credit: Jewish Press

I have always believed that our schools are too focused on accumulating knowledge – what I label as “cerebral acquisition” – instead of dealing with emotions: one’s heart, feelings and sensitivities. We pile on our children tons of work consisting of memorization and we very often lose what makes us human: the emotions that we have, the friendships that we make and the hugs and support that we so need to survive as human beings.

There is a time when our children need to “unwind,” to take a rest from the vicissitudes of life and once again focus on what’s really important: our family and our loved ones.

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This was especially true during the recent Covid pandemic when educators finally understood the value and the centrality of a child’s family.

This is perhaps one of the reasons we were given the gift of Shabbat. It is a pause in time. For a brief moment, as we usher in the Shabbat, time, as we know it, stands still. All our unpaid bills, office hassles, and professional aggravations are put on hold as we dedicate one day to G-d.

For six days before Shabbat, we pretend to believe that we are in control of our lives and our destiny. We think we have the power to make choices and to effect change in this world. Shabbat comes along and sobers us. We look around at our families and loved ones and we realize that all that we think important, all that we strive for during the work week, is really unimportant. The vital elements of our lives are sitting right before us at our Shabbat table.

When I describe the central theme of Shabbat to my students, I always focus on that point – that Shabbat is a time when the Jewish people recognize their mortality and in essence declare that G-d is in control of the universe.

Almighty G-d is truly the one who shapes our destiny and the destiny of the entire world. When Shabbat enters, we acknowledge this with modesty and introspection. We recognize that we are only a speck in this great world and only a small impression in the unfolding of time.

As an educator, I have always believed that teachers should realize this as well. Shabbat is not a time to burden students with extra homework assignments. It is a time for students to focus on their families and the relationships in a successful family. When we get down to it, the basis of all of Judaism is centered around the family.

Synagogues and day schools are important but they play a secondary role compared to the importance of one’s family. The essence of Shabbat is the uniting of family. Completing homework assignments only serves to take away from the spirit of the day.

In the secular world this idea became a reality in the small town of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Parents were so concerned and involved with the success of their children that they loaded them down with every conceivable extracurricular activity. They became “hyper” parents, transporting their children to and from sports, music and dance activities, losing site that they were destroying the very essence and fiber of what a family should be. They finally recognized that they were working against themselves.

“Let’s plan a night where nothing is planned, designed to let families do whatever they want,” was their call. This would be a time when families would focus solely on improving the dynamics of their family. No baseball games, no ballet lessons, no band or sports activities; just a time to relate to what is really important in life, loved ones and family.

The experiment proved successful. People started looking forward to doing it again next year. It afforded families a chance to step back and appreciate the true blessings that they had in their transient existence. It made them realize that all those extracurricular activities that they provided their children, though important, pale in relation to the time spent with family.

The Jewish people were given this gift every week. Those Jews who take advantage of this great treasure savor every minute of it. They focus on the enduring aspects of their lives – their families and their children.

For the Jewish people, the experiment in Ridgewood New Jersey was not something new.

For the Jewish people it is called Shabbat – a time of reflection and appreciation. A time when homework and school work have no place.

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Rabbi Mordechai Weiss has been involved in Jewish education for the past forty-six years, serving as principal of various Hebrew day schools. He has received awards for his innovative programs and was chosen to receive the coveted Outstanding Principal award from the National Association of Private Schools. He now resides in Israel and is available for speaking engagements. Contact him at ravmordechai@aol.com or 914-368-5149.