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Shabbat as social action

by Akiva Gersh

In college, I was an activist.

I organised, I protested, I rallied, I yelled, I held up signs for causes I believed in. And in my free time, I put up posters, passed out leaflets and wrote op-eds to try to encourage others to care too.

Activism became my passion, my philosophy, my social circle, my worldview. It changed me and changed the way I lived. From the books I read to the foods I ate to the products I bought (or didn’t buy). It was the first thing in my life that I invested my whole being into.

But, after years of working towards social change on a variety of fronts (free Tibet, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, sweatshops, environmental issues and more) it also wore me down. Overwhelmed me. At times, even depressed me.

When your eyes are open wide to the many problems of our world, when you become a semi-expert in detecting the ills of society all around you, it’s hard not to feel this way.

Wherever I looked, I saw something wrong. Another thing that humans messed up. Another problem to try and fix. Another rally to attend to try and shake the world from its slumber.

And even though I knew that social action was my passion and the right thing to do, I also knew this way of living was not sustainable.

Then, at the age of 20, I discovered Shabbat. And everything changed. I became a new kind of person. And a new kind of activist.

Suddenly, there was a bigger picture. A different picture. A larger context. And a different way of working towards social change.

Connecting to Shabbat was the gateway that led me to further exploration of my Jewish roots and eventually led me to choose a lifestyle based on the rituals and laws of Judaism. And as I learned more about what the Torah contained, I started to understand that Judaism’s long list of do’s and don’ts was really a carefully designed system, and the end goal was to radically and completely change the world we live in. To bring about a time when all of humanity would live with increased compassion and heightened spiritual consciousness.

With this understanding, I realised that Judaism is essentially an activist movement – possibly the greatest to ever exist. Because Judaism sees social change not only as taking place at organised events like protests and marches and rallies, but as the work of all individuals improving our world constantly, as a daily, hourly, and even minute-to-minute task. As Jews, we are meant to be activists in every moment, perpetually confronted with opportunities to positively impact the world around us.

And, at its epicentre is Shabbat. The Jewish day of rest that is probably the most radical of all Jewish laws and customs. And the most essential to social action.

Shabbat reminds us that there must be a time when we stop and simply rest. Stop doing all the things we constantly, regularly, routinely do during the week. The never-ending to-do lists, the perpetual “one more thing” we just have to get done, the constant running to and fro, even if this running around is directed towards social change and global improvement. It allows us to retreat into a state of slowed-down existence, so we can restore our energy and our drive to keep on doing the work that needs to be done in order to make our world a better place.

Shabbat is a time to humble ourselves and remind ourselves that it’s not all about us. That the world can actually exist without our constant intervention and interference. That we are but one piece in a bigger puzzle, playing but one part in a large cast of characters. One day a week of reduced doing can help us to contemplate that bigger picture we humans are a part of, and, as a result, better understand our unique place in it all.

Shabbat is a time for personal reflection. To take an honest look at ourselves. Evaluate ourselves. Lovingly judge how we are doing. And then make adjustments to better align our own personal thoughts, speech and actions with the kind of world we want to see and are trying to bring about. To make sure that who, how and what we are is indeed a reflection of the change we want to see in the world. To remind ourselves that it’s not just about trying to get the world “out there” to change, but that our own self-improvement is crucial to the process of improving our world. As we strive towards fixing the imperfections in ourselves, we contribute to the fixing of our imperfect world.

Throughout Shabbat prayers, we attest to the fact that Shabbat is a “zecher l’ma’aseh Bereishit – a reminder of the act of Creation”. These three words contain the deepest secret of Shabbat and its connection to social action. As human beings, we are prone to forget. From where our car keys are to why we’re here in this world and why there’s even a world at all. Shabbat calls on a distant memory of the very beginning moments of Creation, one that is deeply embedded in our psyche, to reconnect us to the original vision for the world. In remembering how the world was meant to be, and could be, we are reminded of what we can do to actively take part in the process of tikkun olam, fixing the world.

In Kiddush on Friday night, we say that Shabbat is a “zecher l’yitziyat mitzrayim – a remembrance of leaving Egypt”. What’s the connection between Shabbat and the Jewish Exodus from slavery around 3 500 years ago? Among other things, it positions Shabbat as a weekly reminder that our people’s past suffering should inspire us to be aware of the suffering of other people in our world today. That in the hustle and bustle of our weekday realities, we shouldn’t be blind or deaf to those who are oppressed, persecuted or mistreated. That being Jewish is a balancing act between strengthening and caring for Am Yisrael and keeping an eye open to the world to see where we can help others as well with their suffering and struggles.

In college, I came to the realisation that those of us in the activist community, by definition, were always fighting against something; against what we deemed wrong or evil, angry at the rampant injustice in society. But it was a rare moment when we stopped to celebrate what we actually wanted to see in the world, to appreciate what was already good. Shabbat forces us, every single week, to do exactly that. To stop the yelling and the marching, the social media posts and our critiques of society, and to notice that which is already beautiful, inspiring, complete and whole in the world. To give thanks for what we have and to recognise the abundant blessings all around us. Shabbat trains us to have a “good eye”, seeing the good all around us – which in turn helps us to not be consumed or paralysed by the brokenness of our world and to strengthen our hope that one day the darkness that still exists will be transformed to light.

This idea is summed up by a line in a popular Shabbat song, describing Shabbat as “may’ein olam ha’bah – a taste of the World to Come”. On a spiritual level, it gives us a sense, a hint, a glimpse of what the world will be like when everything has already been fixed and corrected. It’s as if Shabbat comes from the future once a week to tell us: “Yes, we will get there and here’s a sneak peek of what it’ll look like.” This has tremendous potential to keep us on the path, not give up or give in, and to strengthen our belief that, yes, one day we shall overcome.

Shabbat, then, is the perfect “day off” for activists from their regular activism. Take a break. Have a rest. Celebrate the good.

But, more than that, Shabbat is a powerful “day on” that allows us to affect the world in different, more subtle ways, in more reflective, personal and spiritual ways. And to realise that a weekly step back from our everyday actions may be, in fact, the greatest thing we can do for the world.

Akiva Gersh

Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book Becoming Israeli (, a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar, and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School, in Israel, in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.

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