Set the table for dinner. That’s all I asked. It was a Friday morning and there was no school. I came home and found out that my three wise offspring had convinced our nanny that they didn’t need to set the table for Shabbat. Why? Because, after all, we were just going to come home from synagogue and eat cereal and bananas or challah and butter.
I immediately went into my internal Chicken Little “the sky is falling” routine.
I had grown up with this valued tradition of Friday night dinner and was proud that it had become sacred for my children. Following the example my parents set for my sister and me, I have for much of my life set aside time Friday evening for the Sabbath ritual of synagogue and home. The time around the table is ideally uninterrupted if brief since I, a pulpit rabbi, lead services most weeks at what is dinner time for much of the world with school-age children.
My former husband and I had placed primacy on Friday night Sabbath dinner since our children were born. We did it as a team nearly every week. We set the table with the ritual items: Kiddush cups, challah and candles. Our meal involved a main dish and, so often, our children’s favorite dishes, broccoli, and couscous with raisins. Flowers and a special dessert set the meal apart. We blessed our children. And we all sat down together.
Then things changed. We separated and divorced. Our joint custody arrangement included the children alternating weekends. I was adamant that we continue Shabbat dinner together. It worked for a while. And now, ironically, our children have fewer “traditional” Sabbath dinners with me, the parent who is a rabbi, because we are at synagogue most Friday nights that are “mine.”
I felt the loss powerfully and lamented to friends. They offered suggestions to make it easy: Bring in dinner or ask my babysitter to help cook. Just keep it simple. I tried.
But there was more to it than just the food. Shabbat dinner was a key to our intact family’s life. While not perfect, the bar was high. Even after I was past noting the empty seat at the table, I continued to feel I was letting my children down.
I try to listen to friends who say “Rethink your expectations – let this be your new ritual and be good.” And don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that my children love Shabbat. And I can even admit that I model some parenting flexibility with our new form of ritual – challah or cereal at the dining room table eaten by us in pajamas, laughing and talking as we light candles and I bless my three children after we’ve come back from synagogue. After all, for how many years have I, a teacher, taught other parents that what’s important is marking sacred time, and that there can be many paths to do so. Still, I struggle.
In 1951, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel published an exquisite little volume called “The Sabbath.” Heschel describes the Sabbath as a palace in time, setting aside time that is liberated by the “stuff” of the week. I come back to “The Sabbath” often, as Heschel’s words elevate my intention.
Recently I opened a different kind of book as I prepared to teach a parenting class. It’s a practical paperback with no religious intent, “The Book of New Family Traditions – How to Create Rituals for Holidays and Every Day.” The book contains myriad ideas for creating ritual, and its opening chapter lists “Ten Good Things Rituals Do For Children.” Among them impart a sense of identity; provide comfort and security; teach values; pass on ethnic or religious heritage; keep alive a sense of departed family members; generate wonderful memories.
Even in its self-defined imperfect state, our Shabbat observance does all of these good things!
And, last week, something happened. I offered a meal like we used to eat each week. The response? My children begged off — not hungry for a full “real” meal, requesting only broccoli and couscous. It was late and they were tired. We lit candles, sang blessings and I put my hands on their heads to bless them, even as one had her head on the table. We ate a little. They were content. Me too.