Once when I was milling around Brooklyn on a Friday afternoon, a rather sweet and very observant Jewish girl, probably in her late teens, approached me with a box containing two travel-size candlesticks. “Shabbat Shalom,” she smiled, nodding at the Star of David draped around my neck. “Do you observe Shabbat?”
“Sure,” I replied, knowing full well that my definition of observance would never live up to her standards. But, I guessed she knew as much. After all, if I had fit her definition of observant I wouldn’t have been a missionary’s target in the first place.
“Good!” she lit up. “Do you light candles?”
“Will you light them tonight?” she persisted.
“No, I’m away from home.” I eyed the package in her hand and called her next move.
She lit up and handed me the candlesticks. “Here, a gift for you to light tonight.”
I smiled and graciously accepted her gift. Much like student and master at the end of a yoga class, we then exchanged mutual greetings of Shabbat Shalom and parted ways. I credited her for not being too pushy and she checked a mitzvah off her list.
Years later as I walked the bustling streets of Tel Aviv on Friday morning, I’d witness her male Israeli counterparts beckoning Jewish American male tourists to don tefillin and daven as instructed, sometimes turning their backs on homeless men and women sitting at their feet, begging for a meal. After davening the tourist would be shooed back into the hubbub and the missionary would search out his next mitzvah to check off the list. The lowly task of feeding the street urchins was something left to the religiously unobservant natives running the falafel shops. Prayers apparently only count when they’re said by men with money.
This past week I learned that secular Jews are far from immune to the ugly hypocrisy that motivates Jewish missionaries to perform mitzvot on Friday afternoons. Only, in the case of secular Jews, the rush to good deeds involves little more than viewing Shabbat as an excuse to turn off their phones and throw dinner parties. Writing in Vogue, Ariel Feldman gushes over the tradition of Shabbat dinner, observing:
But it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, agnostic, atheist. Shabbat—the concept of spending quality time with friends and family while taking a break from scrolling on Instagram—is for everyone. It is an ancient antidote to our modern ailments.
Feldman then goes on to quote a rabbi who “says Shabbat is essentially an act of mindfulness.” Equating Shabbat with mindfulness is no different than checking a mitzvah off your to-do list. In both cases, you’re pursuing a biblical command in the name of self-righteousness. Whether you’re throwing a phone-less dinner party or forcing a clueless Jew to observe a rabbinic tradition, you’re only doing it to make yourself feel good. Where is God in that?
Feldman quotes author Leandra Medine, who details her Shabbat ritual involving turning off her phone and having meaningful conversations with family: “I actually don’t think you have to be Jewish” to do any of it, she says. Feldman’s idea of observing Shabbat? Turn off your phone, pause for a moment of gratitude, and have a nice meal. God is as present in all of that as He is in the barking of missionaries on the street looking to check another mitzvah off the list.
The day after I watched a missionary turn his back on a homeless man, my husband and I walked the nearly vacant streets of Tel Aviv taking in a peaceful Saturday when a young man ahead of us caught our eye. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, he was rather unremarkable except for the slice of pizza he carried carefully in his left hand. Intrigued, we watched as he walked the slice down to a homeless man sitting on the corner, handed it to him with a simple “Shabbat Shalom,” and kept going on his way. The goodness was in feeding the poor, but the holiness was in the pursuit of total anonymity. Only God could reward that young man for putting someone else’s needs ahead of his own. And just think, he did it all without making the homeless man say the right bracha beforehand or telling anyone whether or not he turned off his phone.
We’re so obsessed with seeking our redemption through ritual that we get lost in the self-serving aspect of the pursuit. Handing out candlesticks is generous. Turning off your phone is great. And while both acts can create a climate that leads to holiness, neither are holy in and of themselves. When we stop getting lost in what makes us feel holy and start truthfully engaging in holy pursuits, that’s when we’ll know the true peace of Shabbat.