I have always believed that our schools are too focused on their students accumulating knowledge – what I label “cerebral acquisition” – instead of dealing with children’s emotions, feelings, and sensitivities. We pile on them tons of work, consisting largely of memorization, and very often we lose what makes us human: the emotions that we have, the friendships that we make, the hugs and support that we need to survive as human beings.
During the recent Covid pandemic, educators finally understood the value and centrality of a child’s family. The reality is that sometimes our children need to unwind, to take a rest from the vicissitudes of life and once again focus on what’s really important – their family and loved ones.
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 prior, 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 up. We look around at our families and loved ones and we realize that all that we think is important, all that we strive for during the workweek, 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. Instead, it is a time for students to focus on family relationships. When we really 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 to unite the 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 had loaded them down with every conceivable extracurricular activity. They became “hyper- parents,” transporting their children to and from sports, music, and dance activities, losing sight of the fact that they were destroying the very essence and fiber of what a family should be.
They finally recognized that they were working against themselves. They decided to set aside one night for families to spend time together. This would be a time when everyone 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 the 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 importance next 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 done in Ridgewood, New Jersey is not a new idea. It is what we call Shabbat – a time of reflection and appreciation. Not a time for schoolwork.