Sometimes I am asked why I choose to bring the woes of the world into our awareness on Shabbat. “Rabbi, I spend all week aware of all that’s wrong in the world – on Shabbat I want to get away from it.” Would that we could so easily “turn off” the world, refresh our souls in peace, and then be ready to come back out into the world full of resolve to repair it. Would that Shabbat really could be such an oasis.
For the oasis to be complete, however, we’d have to close our eyes to a lot of what is true of our human Jewish lives, even on Shabbat. The parashat hashavua is a good example; Ki Tetze is full of specific laws meant to correct for all-too-common human sins: social, sexual, environmental, and more.
When you go out to war… (Devarim 21.10)
When a husband hates a wife…(21.15)
When a child disobeys a parent’s authority…(21.18)
If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death…(21.22)
Do not take the mother [bird] together with the young…(22.6)
In short, if you want to spend Shabbat away from the real world, you won’t be able to spend it as a Torah-learning Jew on this Shabbat. Our Torah, and our prayers as well, are too immersed in the world – too much of the world and our place in it – to allow us to close our eyes and turn away from the world, and call it Shabbat. Not in this world; perhaps, in the World To Come.
The parashah is named, after all, Ki Tetze – “when you go out”. We all have an inner life and it must be nurtured, but one must also hold on to the outer world, for it offers us an anchor to reality, through the communities in which we find our place. Once in a while we all need a reality check from someone we trust.
Jewish spirituality is embedded in the messiness and the sinfulness of the human condition as we are, here and now. It is out of that context that we find the sparks of light to find our way. Jewish mysticism compares the presence of G-d in the world to tiny sparks of light which are hidden in klipot, in shell casings that are hard and heavy. We do not find the sparks by closing our eyes to the world of klipot, but by opening our eyes wide, bringing all our discernment to bear, and searching within the ugliness and difficulty of human life in all its pain and sorrow.
That is because everything, even the klipot, are part of the Oneness of All that Is. You, and I, and those who go out to war, and those who hate, and those who mock, and those who are put to death, and the little bird on the ground trying to protect her nest. We cannot turn away from them and find G-d, for all of them, all of us together, are the reflection of G-d. The world is nothing more or less than that, though it seems madly contradictory. It is contradictory and confusing and complicated – but also sweet, with moments of blessing that are sweeter for their surprising presence underneath that which so often blocks them from our sight. We can have both, because we are constantly living in both. Sometimes we see through tears, and sometimes we are also capable of moments of reprieve, in which we can rest without turning away from the reality of those tears in our world.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with G-d,
but only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
I wish you a barefoot Shabbat – and blackberries too.