Title: Stop, Look, Listen
By Nehemia Polen
Although Shabbos is “a day of the soul,” because it comes weekly, we can often overlook the spiritual aspects of the day. Many books on the market deal with the minutiae of observance, such as how hot “yad soledet bo” is or how you can make guacamole properly on the holy day, and how much wine and challah must be consumed. As important as these details are, there’s more to our Shabbos observance than a nap on the couch, and properly made cholent. We often don’t realize Shabbos’ beauty because we’ve only learned about its restrictions. How does one access the character of Shabbos? The inertia of our observance only will keep us going for so long. In the words of the Chofetz Chaim, “The people in Radin keep Shabbos because the people in Radin keep Shabbos. What will be if they leave Radin, will be a different story.”
What can we do to rise above the rote observance and imbibe the potent Shabbos experience?
Enter Dr. Nehemia Polen’s newest offering, Stop, Look Listen. We experience a set table of experiential education. It is a complete manual for Shabbos. His thesis is that there are three qualities, whose themes pervade Shabbos. They are “stopping” – cessation of work, “looking” – re-experiencing the world around you, and then “listening” – to the inner message of Shabbos, as it applies to you.
This is not our first experience with Dr. Polen’s writings. He initially introduced us to the writings of the Aish Kodesh, R Kalonimous Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczno, titled “Holy Fire”. He once again brought us back to pre-war Poland through the autobiography of R Shapira’s niece, Bat-Tzion Shapira in “The Rebbe’s Daughter” Through her eyes, we visit the courts of Kozhnitz and Grodzhinsk.
By teaching us mindfulness exercises for the beginner, and the expert, Polen helps us to build perspective, setting the stage for a mindful observance of Shabbos. He explains practices that we might have skipped over, and teaches us how to bring these understandings to every aspect of Shabbos.
I believe that Dr. Polen’s presentation echoes the methodology of the Piacezno Rebbe as well. The Rebbe’s works are filled with visualizations and mindfulness techniques used to enrich the experiences of the everyday rituals of jewish practice. Consider his words in Holy Fire – “It must also be noted that the hasidic movement had undergone changes since its early days. The freshness, vitality, and boldness that had once characterized the movement had inevitably dissipated somewhat with the passage of time. A movement that was once daring and innovative…” By the twentieth century, the appellation chasid often had more to do with attachment to a specific community, adherence to its modes of dress, and loyalty to its leader, than with the fostering of inner spirituality as taught by the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. Hasidic yeshivot had largely re-appropriated the mitnaggedic ideal of excellence in Talmud studies; their Roshei Yeshiva often taught in the “Lithuanian” mode.
Rabbi Shapira’s goals for his yeshiva were more far reaching. He wished to develop a core group of “sublime stature” (bnei aliyah) who might revitalize the chasidic movement. But if the original Beshtian vision was to be recovered it would now require a systematically presented, developmental approach to Hasidic spirituality… imbuing the child with a vision of his own potential greatness and enlisting him as an active participant in his own development. The teacher must learn to speak the language of the student, and graphically convey the delights of a life of closeness to G-d. In earlier times it was possible to teach the structure of Jewish religious practice without imparting a sense of its inner significance, in the hope that practice would lead to genuine involvement and inner commitment. Now, however, writes Rabbi Shapira, the youngster’s intellectual and emotional capabilities develop at an earlier age than previously, and the child must be presented, from the very beginning of his educational career, with a sense of the inner beauty of the life of Torah, to prevent his being captured by the far more obtrusive and blatant attractions of the big city and its culture…”
I highly recommend this new work, based on the Piaseczno methodology to enhance your Shabbos experience. Whether you use it by yourself, with your family or with a group, you will find new meaning in all facets of your Shabbos experience.