I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life: Last year I faced cancer head on when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Following multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and a heavy dose of radiation, I came out OK. In the process I lost all my hair. I could only work for a few hours at a time. People no longer recognized me. I couldn’t sleep or eat. My daughter asked me more than once if I was going to die.
Somehow I made it.
I’ve served as a rabbi for 13 years. I buried people who left this world in the most tragic ways, parents that bid farewell to children, couples who came to me with tales of deep woe. I have helped people navigate unspeakable setbacks and hurt.
With all of this behind me, still, parenting is the hardest thing I do or have ever done. It’s the hardest thing I will ever do. It was manageable with one kid, challenging with two kids; it feels just shy of crazy with three kids. My wife and I are full-time professionals in the Jewish world. Our life is fundamentally good, but it is often a hard life.
Our work is desperately demanding, with phones buzzing all hours of the day and night, a steady diet of committee meetings, and conference calls, writing and preparing and teaching.
But it’s parenting that totally consumes us. We cram in carpools and birthday party pick-ups. We somehow get everyone to karate and dance practice. Homework happens in a flurry of after-dinner commotion and chaos. We meet with our kids’ teachers early in the morning or via phone during lunch.
Sometimes we get to bed totally unsure how we made it through the day at all. Did we forget something? Maybe. Could we have done better? Probably.
This is why we have come to rely so heavily on Shabbat. After rabbinic school and over a decade as a congregational rabbi, it’s being a dad that made me finally “get it.”
I’m not talking about the Shabbat of my Orthodox friends and colleagues, a Shabbat of long walks and marathon study sessions, though that sounds nice too. I’m talking about carving out space for all five family members to be together, on the couch, in the backyard, cut off from the incessant noise of the world out there. We limit screens. We try to talk more. On Friday night we light the candles. We sing kiddish and motzi.
We put aside everything in the name of remembering who we are. If the week is about doing, then Shabbat is about being: “We turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.”
Sometimes we go to a park or playground. We visit our cousins. We leave homework to the side and let work emails go.
Sometimes we do better at this than others. And in so doing we feel our shoulders come down. We watch the stress dissipate a bit. Maybe we talk about the week’s Torah portion. We laugh a lot. And I think to myself that this is what God intended on the first ever Sabbath so many millennia ago.
I believe Shabbat can be a gift, specifically to parents. In a culture and age so challenging for all of us, and very much so for parents, a world that is relentless and unforgiving, Shabbat is a balm. It gives us rest and perspective. It gives our children reassurance and calm. It gives all of us the chance to re-connect with something larger, something lasting.
It is what Rabbi Heschel called a “cathedral in time,” one we could all benefit from visiting, now more than ever.