Austin Zoot is the Rabbi Educator at the Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio. For more content from Rabbi Zoot, visit his website: austinmzoot.com.
It seems as though the weather is always bad on the Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend. This year, that was the first truly cold day we had in Cincinnati. As a Chicago transplant, I certainly judge the culturally engrained weakness of the “southerners” in our city. But I’ve done this long enough to know that the cold temperatures, mixed with the popular travel days, meant that attendance at Friday night services would be scant.
Regardless of the circumstances, you can find us at Valley Temple every Friday night and Saturday morning, no questions asked. We have services on Christmas and New Years Day when they fall that way during the week. We have services throughout the summer and during winter break. If it’s a Friday, we’ll be open, ready to make Shabbat for anyone who wants to join us.
While my love of Judaism and Shabbat mean that I relish the chance to go to services every week, I am also a citizen of the modern world. I’m well familiar with all of the demands for our attention in contemporary society. High School football games, Happy Hour with friends, the sheer exhaustion from a long week of work are all understandable reasons to struggle to get to services. We make it our mission at our congregation not to judge anyone for their inability to make it to services. But it also bears stating outright: the reason we offer services with such consistency is because we genuinely believe communal celebration of Shabbat is a brilliant and vital act of self-care.
With the breakneck speed of daily life, there has been a strong recent focus on the significance of self-care in our culture. Meditation, journaling, and visits to nature (among others) are all the rage, and each individual is on the constant look-out for the particular regimen that works best for you. Judaism has been investing in this system of practice for three millennia, and Shabbat is arguably our greatest contribution. The ability to make space for rest, to expect nothing of ourselves but peaceful reflection and healing, is a powerful tool not only for stepping away from the hectic world around us, but also for rejuvenating ourselves for the future. As the options for self-care continue to expand, we are reminded that we don’t constantly have to re-invent the wheel. Sometimes, the best ways to fill our cups are the ones that our ancestors established so beautifully for us.
So, on that Friday night after Thanksgiving, it was only the die-hards who trekked their way into the cold, dark night to join the service. Instead of the usual spot for a sermon, we decided to offer “Ask the Rabbi,” a chance for members of the community to ask the questions that they haven’t had the chance to engage before. We covered everything from how to address the conflict in Israel with well-intended yet ignorant peers to what the best thing is about the Torah (as if I could only pick one!). But most importantly, we had the chance to build the intimacy and warmth that is essential to communal Jewish prayer. We were able to come together and talk, explore, play, and laugh, truly bringing new meaning to the expression, “those who keep Shabbat will call it a delight.”
We are fast approaching the slow part of the calendar, the time when many of us will be traveling or hunkering down for the winter. If you are looking for a chance to further deepen your connection either to Judaism generally or Shabbat specifically, this is the perfect time to find your way to a community that is praying together. Smaller crowds usually means greater intimacy, greater facetime with other members of the community and the rabbinic leadership. There is no better time to dip your toe in the life-affirming self-care that is a full and meaningful investment in our day of rest, in our communities, and in ourselves.