Breathe Into Shabbat

headshot of Rabbi Sue Shankman

Shabbat is all about the pause. As we prepare to enter into Shabbat at a confusing and challenging time such as this, how do we pause, when in so many ways, our lives have already been paused? How can we mark Shabbat as a different time, a sacred time, and treat that time with holiness, at a moment in which we are already experiencing many aspects of Shabbat?

 Each of us may define that in ways that are unique to our lives, others in similar ways. For some that means time at home, time off or away from work and school, a break from the busyness of our everyday schedules. A day that is different from our mundane, from the routine of our lives. How do we mark sacred time when our routine has been upended? 


Many of you have no doubt seen the poem by Lynn Ungar, entitled “Pandemic,” which addresses much of what we are feeling, and invites us to embrace this time as a Shabbat.


Pandemic, by Lynn Ungar

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath—

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love—

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.


This Shabbat is Shabbat haChodesh–the Shabbat that comes just prior to the start of the month of Nissan, during which we will observe Pesach, our Festival of Freedom. Shabbat can provide a taste of that freedom each week.

Rabbi Marc Margolius  of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality recently taught something we already know, but appreciate even more as we approach this Shabbat. He wrote that “No matter how crazy our lives get, Shabbat comes along to remind us to “cease and take a breath.” It beckons us to stop our frenzy; to count to ten; to look carefully and lovingly at our family and neighbors; to halt our frenetic work for one day so that we can remember who we really are, and why our work is meaningful to us.

Shabbat provides us with an alternate behavioral path – a calm, sane roadway through the dark or the storm. This path is the one that teaches us the skill of slowing down our reactions; of assessing the situation carefully; of determining what can and cannot be accomplished; and of acting in ways that are whole and healing…

Shabbat is the exercise that builds our restorative response muscles.”


We can of course begin with blessings. We celebrate Shabbat in community–it brings us together weekly, and tonight we can do that in a few ways. We can draw together with those we love, whether in person, or virtually. Reach out to family and friends, and invite them to share the Shabbat blessings together. We can ask God’s blessing upon one another through the words of the priestly benediction (Numbers 4:24-26):


יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

May God bless you and watch over you.

(May you feel blessed and safe)

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃


May God’s presence shine on you and be gracious to you.

(May you feel luminous and loved)

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s presence shine upon you and those you love and give you peace.

(May you feel joyous and whole)


We also hope you will join us at Washington Hebrew Congregation this evening and tomorrow morning for our livestreams of this week’s Shabbat services. While we may be physically separated, we can come together in prayer and community, and share a taste of the world to come. A world of wholeness, health, and peace.


Shabbat Shalom


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