Three years ago, on October 27, 2018, a white supremacist committed the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States, killing eleven worshippers at a Shabbat morning service in Pittsburgh.
That weekend, I was attending a Shabbaton [program of Jewish learning over the Sabbath] in Thornhill. Since I was staying with an Orthodox family, I did not use my phone during Shabbat. And so, like many in the Jewish community, I found out about the shooting once Shabbat ended.
My heart sank. I read a few articles before heading upstairs and I wasn’t going to mention the news to my hosts until they had seen it for themselves.
That weekend, I had experienced what it is to be guarded by the oasis of time that Shabbat had been for all of us. I recalled Heschel’s words: “The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not for petitions.” How could we have avoided anxiety and petitions on that day had we not been observing Shabbat?
There is a very interesting verse in Proverbs 31 about which I had taken note until it came up in a talk recently.
In describing a woman of valour, there is this line in verse 25 which says:
“Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.”
Other translations say that the woman laughs: at tomorrow; at the coming day; at the future; etc.
In a Jewish translation of this verse, it says:
“Strength and beauty are her raiment, and she laughs at the last day.”
The commentary by Rashi offers that “at the last day” suggests “On the day of her death, she departs with a good name.
In his splendid essay “On the Meaning of Sunday,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote about how the early Christians would say, “Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”
Take a look at how he describes this existential priority and what it means in the lives of those who hold to it:
“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.” This is not a labored obedience to an ecclesiastical prescription considered as some external precept, but is instead the expression of an interior duty and, at the same time, of a personal decision. It refers to that which has become the supporting nucleus of one’s existence, of one’s entire being, and it documents what has become so important as to need to be fulfilled even in the case of danger of death, imparting as it does a real assurance and internal freedom. To those who so expressed themselves, it would have seemed manifestly absurd to guarantee survival and external tranquility for themselves at the price of the renunciation of this vital ground. […] For them it was not a question of a choice between one precept and another, but rather of a choice between all that gave meaning and consistency to life and a life devoid of meaning.
I often think about this passage when reflecting on contemporary Christians who risk their lives to go to church in countries where there is severe persecution and repression.
There is indeed something luminous in the witness of those who would risk their lives to affirm the values that make life altogether precious in the first place.
It is a profound and potentially orienting question to contemplate: What is it in our lives without which our survival has no value?
Photo: Maronite Church in Kfar Baram in northern Israel in summer 2017