By Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
Come back, come home
I’m gathering the crumbs and the stones
Been travelling faster than my soul can go
One subject line, one click away
But at the end of the day
I couldn’t even say
The things that I had done
I recently heard this song, The Speed of Soul, by Carrie Newcomer, and the line “traveling faster than my soul can go” really resonated with me. There have been many times in this past year in which I felt that I was traveling faster than my soul can go, pushing myself so hard that I lost my focus, and by the end of the day, could not remember the things that I had done (and what emails, answers, and problems I had not gotten to that day). It’s a frustrating and confusing feeling that leads to so much stress and anxiety, and has been exacerbated by these many difficult months of a pandemic. During these months, we have worried about our family. And money. About staying healthy. About how to get work done that seems almost endless. These many months of confusion about our safety have felt so dangerous and uncertain. I know that many of us have searched for moments of sanctuary amidst a very mixed-up time in our world.
The Torah portion this week is the second one in our newest Torah cycle, parshat Noah. We all remember the story of a person named Noah, who builds an ark and is able to survive the worst flood of his generation. When so much of humanity is wiped out, he is able to survive. The rabbis in the generations that have come after Noah have gleaned so much meaning from the story, even comparing our daily impossible grind to the mabul, the flood, that destroyed almost everyone in its path. This year has been like no other, and its many challenges have felt, at times, like a tremendous flood that has consumed us all and destroyed so much of our health and our hopes for a flourishing future. And the Jewish tradition teaches us that even amidst the great floods of our daily living, finding a chance to rest and cease our worries each Sabbath just might save us, much in the way that the ark saved Noah in our ancient folk tale.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, who was a Hasidic rabbi in Poland in the 1800s, in his work, the Sefat Emet, in 1872, asserted, “The holy Sabbath is like Noah’s ark, for during the week we are all preoccupied with making a living. But on the holy Sabbath, there’s enough spaciousness to retreat and let go of our preoccupations in order to take refuge under the shade of the wings of the Shekhina (loving divine Presence), which spreads a sukkat shalom (shelter of peace) over us. This is like Noah, who was hidden away in the ark, an act of bittul (lit. nullification, but connotes surrender) to the divine root of our chayut (life force). For the whole world was being destroyed and needed to receive new vitality from the Root of Life. And so too every holy Sabbath…”
Rabbi Yehudah Leb Alter described the holiness of the Sabbath as a moment of spaciousness in our lives, like Noah’s ark, where we can retreat from some of what worries us, let go of them for a short while, and find a sense of shelter from life’s storms. He describes this process as an act of surrender to the Root of Life, which in turn, gives us new life and restores us for the coming week, and gives us strength for the challenges ahead.
From now on, as I light the candles to begin Shabbat each Friday night, as I push away all that has disturbed me in the past week, as I ease into some rest and some joy with the coming Sabbath, I will also imagine myself as Noah did, inside the ark, finding some safety and some security amidst the storms of life. May these tiny moments of the Sabbath each week restore us in some way, strengthen us to survive life’s storms, whatever they may be, and prepare us to enter a new week stronger, more alive, and ready to face the preoccupations of life.
Andrea Steinberger is a rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, teaching, learning, questioning, and serving students as they create and expand their Jewish lives and practices during their college years.