It’s not often that I let my 4-year-old Hanna scream endlessly (that is, for more than five minutes). A friend suggested I learn to ignore her sometimes, not to always “give in.”
I chose the worst time to take that advice: at a park in Jerusalem several months ago. I had to make plans with family, so I took calls while Hanna screamed on the floor near the slide.
“Look at your daughter! Aren’t you going to do something?” another mom said to me.
“I know, but I just have to take care of something!” I said, figuring we’ve all been there. Apparently not.
“What can be more important than taking care of your daughter?”
Did she just mommy-shame me?
“Only God can judge!” I snapped back. My one-line sermon did not move her. She glared at me, even wagging her finger and tapping her phone with it, mimicking me.
“Only God can judge!” I preached again. She walked away, finger still wagging.
Her mocking gesture still comes to mind when I’m tapping my phone while Hanna is demanding my attention. This is happening more and more lately, when I’m constantly checking my social media feeds for updates on Israel’s war against Hamas, when my broad concern for my people subsumes my immediate concern for my daughter.
But I’m starting to wonder if this judgmental woman was actually an angel, teaching me to put my phone addiction in check — at least on Shabbat.
Judaism has an ambivalent relationship to angels. After all, God is supposed to be One. But every Shabbat we welcome angels with “Shalom Aleichem,” a 17th century hymn that derives from Jewish Babylonian “magic texts” that describes angels hovering around a heavenly Temple. The Talmud even describes the pleasure of a “good angel” when a Jew comes home from Kabbalat Shabbat with a lamp lit and a bed made (because who has time during the week to make a bed?).
For too long, I’ve shooed away the Shabbat angels. I once observed Shabbat the Orthodox way in my teens and early 20s, until it simply felt too restrictive, even oppressive. Without the belief that an Orthodox Shabbat is dictated by God on pain of some punishment, it’s hard to refrain from turning on a light, driving, cooking, shopping and, of course, checking the phone.
Still, every so often, I long for it. I was reminded of its beauty at a recent Shabbat stay with Orthodox relatives. The smell of the challah and chicken soup around candle-lighting time must be what the mystic poet imagined when he wrote that Shabbat is a “taste of the world to come” in the “Ma Yedidut” hymn.
They had a “Shabbos lamp” that rotated to an on/off position, meaning I got a break even from lifting a switch. And yes, even not having to cut toilet paper felt like a luxury. We enjoyed good food, family time and, mostly importantly, my phone was off. I played Monopoly with Hanna for about an hour, without any other care in the world.
Once we all learned about the horrors inflicted upon the thousands of beautiful Israelis on that dark Shabbat earlier this month, I saw calls from religious friends on Facebook for Jews to observe one Shabbat in honor of the victims and in Jewish solidarity.
I thought the call was misplaced. According to Jewish law, saving a life (pikuach nefesh) trumps Shabbat. We are all in survival mode, even those of us in the diaspora. We need to remain alert to threats against Jews everywhere and be connected with our people.
Even if I wanted to keep a full Shabbat, refraining from electrical appliances would cause serious hardship. As a single mother now living in Berlin away from family, I’m a full-time mom on weekends. To “rest,” I’d have to hire babysitters or organize play dates, for which I’d still be beholden to my phone.
I do what I can: I refrain from work or arduous tasks, which, after all, might have been the intention of the Mishnah when it prohibited 39 acts of manual labor on Shabbat. I try to do activities I enjoy (which involves going to synagogue — when there is a play group — and these days, security!). And I shut off my phone for a few hours, minimizing its use on Shabbat, especially since so many of us work from our smartphones these days. (That means, of course, that I resist the temptation to take pictures of Hanna when she does something really cute!)
As my religious friends on Facebook remind me, when we honor Shabbat, we honor the positive flow of creation. As I lit Shabbat candles recently (after setting the table and making my bed), I remembered that God brings order out of the chaos, beginning with the creation of the first element: light. Shabbat is a holy reset, and perhaps one reason why the Jewish people have endured throughout so much tragedy.
On Shabbat, we’re supposed to relish in the bounty and joy around us, even as we are going through one of the most difficult times in our history. Taking the time, especially on the day designed for it, to shut out the world and focus on our kids — fully concentrated, in the moment — offers a taste of the world to come. Our kids are our angels, reminding us that life will always persist through the tohu v’vohu, the void and darkness.