Drasha patience: Getting most out of Shabbos


The Yalkut Shimoni’s opening comment in his Midrashic exposition on Parshas Vayakhel is translated as follows:

Vayakhel Moshe, and Moshe gathered: Our Rabbis, the master Aggadists, said that from the beginning of the Torah until the end there is no other parsha that begins with a gathering.

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said, “Make for yourselves great gatherings and make drashas, sermonize before them in public regarding the laws of Shabbos, so that future generations will learn from you, to gather every Shabbos. And they should enter the study halls to teach and to show the Israelites the words of the Torah, the forbidden and the permitted, so that My Great Name will be spread amongst my children.”

From this, the rabbis claimed that Moshe established for Israel to study the laws of Pesach on Pesach time, the laws of Atzeres [Shavuos] at Atzeres time, and the laws of Chag [Sukkos] at Chag time.

Moshe said to the Israelites, ‘If you do this in this manner, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will count it as if you have crowned Him king in His world, as it says in Isaiah (43:12), “You are My witnesses, the word of G-d, and I am G-d.”

I think there are two important lessons we can take from this Midrashic account.

The first is that clearly the concept of a drasha, certainly around yom tov time, but even week-to-week, is a good thing.

On Shabbos, we create that experience of a community gathering together, to pray together, to hear the Torah together, to learn together, and hopefully, to be inspired together. We should not feel that the rabbi speaks too long (unless he is unprepared and does not make a point worthy of everyone’s time). We need to remind ourselves why we come to synagogue!

• • •

Some people do not have the opportunity to learn Torah during the week, but if we are a kehillah, a community, a little patience will go a long way. The Torah thoughts shared during the sermon are the starting point of a larger conversation about Torah and our lives as Jews, under G-d.

Our patience and positive support of sermons is a way to strengthen the community, and facilitate others’ learning when the response to a sermon is insightful, thoughtful and focused on its content. And if that conversation extends to the Shabbos table, we are all blessed for it.

The second lesson is to help us focus on why we gather in the first place. Of course we come to the synagogue to pray, and to learn a little. Some people attend a class before or after the services as well, while some get their fill from the sermon. But all of us attend for the focus of which the Yalkut Shimoni spoke, “so that My Great Name will be spread amongst my children,” and so that “G-d will view it as if we have crowned Him King in His World.”

Many shuls have a statement on or above the aron kodesh. In the interest of space I won’t share the many I’ve seen, but here is a summary of their presumed objectives. Some are meant to put the fear of G-d in those who are present. Some are meant to emphasize G-d’s presence in our midst. Some are meant to bring the joy of having G-d in our lives to people’s conscience. The joy of Torah might be a focus as well.

More than anything, I think our goal in synagogue attendance is to bring G-d in the shul space and into our lives.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus said that sometimes we can accuse ourselves of being guilty of having “cultivated a Judaism from which we have left Hashem out of the equation.” Sometimes we are so busy serving G-d that we forget about G-d. Too often, even while we are praying, we don’t pay attention to Whom we are praying! We focus too much on “did you say that part yet?” as opposed to “Did you communicate with your Creator?”

Even our Shabbos observance may run the risk of hitting all the check marks — cholent and kugel, extra sleep, family time, even beautiful davening — and forgetting that all of these are only means to a much higher and important end: G-d Himself, Who is truly the beginning and the end!

• • •

Shabbos is such an integral part of our Jewish experience because it is through Shabbos that we testify to G-d’s existence, and that we note how He created the world in six days and stopped His creative work on the seventh, choosing to sanctify it and make it holy.

Many of the sermons of the great Chassidic masters focus on the special nature of Shabbos. I sometimes wonder why the rebbes felt the need to always talk about Shabbos. Whether we identify as chassidim or not, it is hard to imagine sincere chassidim violating the Shabbos.

But I think the rebbes were trying to ensure that with all the trappings of chassidus — the dress code, the rebbe’s tisch, etc. — that we not forget what Shabbos is really all about. It is not about whether you got shirayim from the rebbe, but whether you remembered to bring G-d into your life.

It’s hard to remember to maintain the special focus. It’s hard to make the Shabbos table conversation one of Torah and holiness at the forefront instead of as an afterthought at desert time.

The Yalkut Shimoni reminds us that we can follow even the simplest ingredients.

We must take the most we can out of the sermon, no matter where we find ourselves for Shabbos. Remember and recall not just whatever story or good line the rabbi told, but take the Torah content and message to heart.

We must make the most we can out of Shabbos. Seek to crown G-d as King in His world, and bear witness to His role in our lives. We who are so good at going through motions must strive to take all that we do to the next level — to feel as if we are His subjects at all times, with the responsibility, or better yet privilege, we have to fulfill His will.