I’ll never forget the time when I was a kid and I asked my dad what the most important day was in the Jewish year. “Shabbat,” he said quickly, as if the question was an obvious one. But I couldn’t believe my ears. “What about Yom Kippur?” I asked. “I thought that was the holiest of the High Holy Days.” He just shook his head. Yom Kippur, he told me, is the most awe-inspiring and spiritual day of the Jewish year. But the most important of the holy days -- and it happens 52 times a year – is Shabbat.
Yesterday, on the I-95 corridor, we had a Shabbat for the ages. Whether you’re talking about DC, Baltimore, Philly or New York, you were pretty much looking at two feet of snow. Here in Bethesda, Maryland, the white stuff started coming down in earnest two or three hours before Shabbat began and it never stopped until two or three hours after Shabbat finished. In total, roughly 27 inches came to the ground. But because it was soft snow and our area had already lost so many shaky trees during the previous “Snowmaggedon,” practically everyone kept their power. Essentially, we were trapped inside our own homes with no ability to drive away, no access to public transportation, and nothing to look at other than snow piled on top of snow. Just the same, I loved it.
The central feature of these Snowmageddons, which seem to come to DC once every five or ten years, is that when they do happen, they dominate your life for as long as the snow is coming down … and possibly for another few days, depending on when the snowplows reach your neighborhood. If you’re fortunate enough to keep your power, you can watch TV, you can do your office work, you can read a book, you can do many of the things you normally do. But honestly, none of those activities seem to matter when you’re doing them. What you’re really thinking about is the weather, and the opportunity to get together with the people you love and contemplate the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature. These Snowmageddon events provide a perfect break from your normal routine -- and by “normal,” I’m referring to the way we live during the previous 1500 days of our lives. When you’ve got heat in the vents, functioning lights on the ceilings, and multiple feet of snow on the lawn, Mother Nature has given you a choice: you can either whine about Cabin Fever or you can embrace the idea that the less you care about your typical concerns the better your life can be. And that, my friends, is also the key principle behind the beauty of Shabbat.
Shabbat is the crown jewel of traditional Judaism. To be considered an Orthodox Jew, you at least have to be “Shomer Shabbos,” meaning that you have to observe all of the ritual “commandments” associated with the Sabbath. No driving. No cooking. No money transactions. No operating TVs or other electrical appliances. For that matter, you can’t even write. The idea is that for one day a week for your entire life, you give yourself a total break from the activities you engage in the rest of the week. And that idea, together with the rituals associated with it, has formed the cornerstone of the Jewish religion over the centuries.
Candidly, with the one exception of a brief stay in Israel when I was 20, I have never lived a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle. I try to attend synagogue on Friday nights and am mindful of the need to take a break from my normal routine even on Saturdays. Yet I have never crossed the Rubicon to the point where I’m truly Ortho-kosher. For one thing, my avocational life is too important to me to take one of the two days a week that I spend outside of the office and completely avoid writing and electronic devices.
But after spending this past Shabbat watching the snow fall and accumulate with my wife, my dog, and a family of dear friends who have taken us in during both of the last two Snowmaggedons, I have to pay my respects to the concept of a Shabbat. It helps us breathe. It helps us love. And it helps us focus on what is truly most important. Whether you want to contemplate God or Mother Nature, either one sounds far more compelling to me than the junk on TV or the papers in my briefcase.