It’s remarkable. The Torah portion of this year’s Shabbat Project couldn’t be more apt. In a year when, as a result of the coronavirus, the Shabbat project has pivoted from the big public events to a more intimate, home-based experience – hence the call of this year’s campaign, “Bring Shabbat Home” – the project falls out on a parsha that deals explicitly with the Jewish home.
Parshat Vayera begins by setting the stage for the future of the Jewish people. Abraham and Sarah are the founding father and mother of our people. They were the pioneers; the ones who, in a world completely lost and confused – a world disconnected from G-d, and bereft of compassion and ethics – restored faith and kindness to the world. They were the ones who answered God's call and embarked on a journey – a physical journey to the land of Israel, but also a spiritual journey to embrace and bring to the world a Divine value system.
Today, we live in the world Abraham and Sarah built. Our God is their God. Our values are the values they stood for and championed. But there was no guarantee that the world they built in their lifetime would outlive them, much less be in existence today. Indeed, they had real concerns about continuity because they had no children. They had no idea what the future would look like, or how everything they had fought to establish in the world would be continued.
This week’s parsha sets that future on a firm footing. It’s about the promise of continuity, the promise of the birth of their son, Isaac. Isaac would ensure the great moral vision of his parents would endure – that it would not simply be a passing flash of lightning in a dark sky, but a revolutionary way of being that would light up human history; a source of inspiration and illumination for generations to come.
What’s significant about this dramatic prophecy is that it is grounded in the vision of what a great Jewish home can be. And it’s not incidental that this week’s Torah portion paints a picture of the ideal Jewish home – a place of kindness and compassion, openness and connection, light and faith. The message is clear – the Jewish future is created in our homes. Abraham and Sarah changed the world through their home.
We read in the parsha of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent on a hot day, waiting restlessly for people to help, people to serve. Our sages tell us that his tent is open on all four sides so that anyone needing rest and comfort and shelter can enter. We read of his evident delight and enthusiasm as he rushes to help a group of desert wayfarers. (The travellers, it later transpires, are angels who have come to relate a prophecy about the forthcoming birth of Isaac, but when Abraham runs out to assist them he doesn’t know that.)
We then read in extraordinary detail of how Abraham and Sarah work together to prepare choice delicacies for their guests, lavishing them with painstaking care and attention, ensuring they are made to feel welcome and looked after in every respect.
We are taught also of how Abraham and Sarah’s home was a place not just of kindness, but of faith. How they spread the values of ethical monotheism to everyone they came into contact with. They were beacons of light and engaged with the world through their home, the place which embodied their values and through which those values were transmitted to Isaac and the generations that followed – and to the many, many people who walked through their open door.
The Jewish home has been the beacon of light, the heart of our people, for thousands of years. And at the centre of the Jewish home are our Jewish values of kindness and compassion, faith and connection – and, particularly, Shabbat. Shabbat, the source of so much of who we are as Jews, happens in our homes. It is in our homes that we light Shabbat candles, make kiddush, bless our children. It’s in our homes that we have the three sacred meals in honour of Shabbat, singing Shabbat songs and sharing words of Torah. It is in our homes that we gather as family and friends, keeping its laws which give us the space to connect with one another, and ourselves, in such a deep way.
Over the course of the pandemic, forced to stay home, we’ve come to appreciate our homes like never before. Amidst the hustle and bustle, the mad frenzy, of 21st century living, our homes, once again, have become our havens – the centre of our lives. And Shabbat has never been more relevant and compelling.
That’s why the theme for this year’s Shabbat Project is “Bring it home”. Over the years we have all been inspired by the amazing energy of coming together in large numbers. We’ve witnessed giant spectacles of celebration uniting people of incredibly diverse backgrounds, all centred on Shabbat. This year’s Shabbat Project celebrations are going to be quieter, more intimate – but no less powerful. This year we are bringing the magic of Shabbat into our homes.
The circumstances have driven us in this direction, but it is a unique opportunity – a gift from God – to refocus our energies and make our homes the focal point of our Shabbat and the centrepiece of our lives.
This year, on the Shabbat of parshat Vayeira, let us begin a journey to a brighter Jewish future, let us model our homes on the home of Abraham and Sarah. Let each of us make our home a sanctuary, a spiritual safe-haven, a place of kindness and warmth, faith and connection, filled with the light and joy of Shabbat.
And in bringing the magic of Shabbat home this Shabbat Project, let us remind ourselves that we have the power to do so every week.
Every week is our opportunity to build the Jewish future.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project.