I have one friend who keeps Shabbat. One. And she struggles with it every single week. That used to be me until I slowly let the traditions and rules that I grew up with slip away – finally bringing me to a place where I act like Shabbat is just an average Saturday. I wear what I want, I do any and all sorts of activities and I rarely partake in the traditions or go to shul. To an outsider, it must seem like this all comes naturally to me. Like I’ve embraced this new way of functioning and welcomed it with open arms. I wish it were that easy. Instead, I’m left struggling with guilt and discomfort for my actions. It feels incredibly strange waking up on Saturday morning and checking my phone or walking around outdoor Saturday food fairs as if I’m a weekend regular.
In the simplest of terms, I lost the strength to hold on. For years I battled the urge to leave my phone on, use the computer or ride the subway on Shabbat. I would stay back while my friends went out. Or patiently sit tight, staring into space while they scoured the Internet for the perfect birthday outfit. It was Shabbat and I didn’t want to be doing those things. I grew up with strict rules forbidding me to do muksa and I couldn’t act against my upbringing.
My mother died when I was fourteen, right before sophomore year of high school, and along with her death came the slow deterioration of my religious foundation. As a child growing up, she forced me to daven before watching TV on Sunday mornings and made sure I said shema before going to sleep. My mother kissed me and wished me a “good Shabbos” every Friday night after lighting the Shabbat candles and insisted I give a d’var Torah at the Shabbat table. It’s easy to teach a child habits and show them the bright side of a religion and these are the years that I had her to do exactly that. But once she died and I slowly became an adult, I was left to continue these traditions on my own and find meaning in them. I was suddenly faced with an understanding that religion is personal and the option exists to follow it or not to follow it. As a respect to my dead mother, I chose to hold on to the values that she taught me and the behaviors that came along with them.
But years passed, I moved into an apartment in the city, and it became increasingly more difficult to find value in the often nitty-gritty restrictions and boundaries that come along with Shabbat. I was always able to see the beauty in the day and the centuries-old customs, but those were no longer outweighing my temptation to be free from it all. The urge to keep my phone on became too tempting to conquer. I no longer felt like staying back alone and missing out on fun events with my friends. I made some non-Jewish friends and felt weird disappearing on them for a day. So I slowly let things go.
I started riding the subway to concerts but justified it by paying in advance and having a friend swipe my metro card for me. Granted I wasn’t acting in the spirit of Shabbat but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Right? I would watch movies and browse the Internet with friends but always made sure they were the one in control of the mouse. I felt the walls slowly coming down but still, to some degree, held on to the lifestyle that I was so familiar with. All along I knew that I was doing it mainly out of respect to my mother. I wasn’t ready to let her traditions go.
But the slope became too slippery and I began falling harder and harder - making exceptions and excuses for actions and behaviors that I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on. My phone stayed on past Friday’s sundown and I became reachable during these usually out-of-touch hours. I would flick on a light here and there. I began riding the subway and paying for entertainment. It no longer felt possible to hold on to my former habits and I began realizing that it’s not what I wanted anyway. Instead, I wanted to be having fun and enjoying time with my friends. Exploring and experiencing anything and everything without boundaries.
So here I am today. I’ve gotten used to my new lifestyle in that I’m open to suggestions to go on day trips and expectations to be answering phone calls or text messages. I like having this extra day to do what I want and take care of the things that pile up throughout the week. Letting go of the rules of Shabbat has given me the opportunity to enjoy long camping trips (which bring me a lot of joy) and form relationships that I otherwise wouldn’t have (it turns out that people go out on Friday nights too). It’s helped me maintain the strong bond that I’ve created with my best friends rather than building a separation between us.
There are often times that I think back on Shabbats in high school or as child and miss it. I see the value in this special time to live a simpler life and change gears for twenty-five hours. I cherished those long summer days spent with friends playing all sorts of games and creating new forms of entertainment to make the time pass. The countless hours I spent preparing food just for the sake of it, taking the time to have dinner with my family, or walking aimlessly around my house during those last few minutes of Shabbat. I never thought twice about keeping Shabbat as a child and this makes things much harder for me now.
More than everything, though, I still can’t smother the guilty feelings that come along with acting in ways that challenge my upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my mother. I am aware that I’m breaking Shabbat every single time I touch my phone, with every credit card swipe I make and every light I turn on. I breathe a sigh of relief on Saturday night when those first three stars come out and I know it’s no longer Shabbat. The guilt is a bitter reminder that I’m not one hundred percent comfortable with where I am and what I’m doing. That I’m disrespecting my mother who can’t even yell at me for doing so. Or approach me and have a conversation asking me why I’ve let go. The guilt tells me that maybe things would be different if I were stronger and held on to those values. Maybe things would be better.
I try week after week to come to peace with my situation and lifestyle. I tell myself that what I do one Saturday has nothing to do with what I will do the next and that these decisions are ever-changing. I remind myself that it will never be too late to rewelcome Shabbat and all of those familiar rules and traditions. Sometimes I try to participate in a “Shabbat activity” and go to shul in the morning or to Friday night dinner. I use a regular toothbrush on Friday nights instead of my regular toothbrush, which is electric. These things help me justify my other actions and keep those Shabbat traditions close by. I believe that today’s actions are the most powerful and know that Shabbat does not fit into my life right now. I just really wish I felt more complacent here. I wish I could tell my mother how hard it’s been to hold on and hear her tell me that my actions are ok.
Although this is a struggle in my life right now, I am confident that I’ll eventually reach a place of contentment. Whether that comes simply with time or less simply with a husband or first child, I am hopeful that I’ll find the right way to incorporate Shabbat and the values I was brought up with into my life. I imagine I’ll look back on these days and appreciate the experiences that I had and even the hardships that came along with them. I’m not sure if I’ll return to the exact lifestyle that I had as a child but hey, every generation makes their own changes. Don’t they?
Tova is the founder of Tidy Tova, where she currently services clients as a Professional Organizer. She plans to make the world a tidier place through her actions and words. For more information and inspiration, you can check out her website.
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