Back to School, Back to Shul

Posted on August 22, 2019

Rabbi Alex Freedman

Ah, it’s that time of year again. Time to buy the kids new folders; time to buy them new shoes; time to unearth that backpack you buried somewhere last June.

In equal measure for kids and parents, the beginning of the school year is an annual rite of passage. Yet there’s at least one crucial difference between them.

For the students, each year brings a tangible sense of advancement. “No longer am I in Grade X,” they tell themselves with good reason. “I’ve moved up to Grade Y.”

Not so for the parents. It’s possible, even easy, for these school years to feel the same to parents. One year may feel identical to the next. Or if not exactly so, the transition might be gradual instead of as sudden as a first day of school.

As a parent, I envy the ease with which students feel themselves advancing and growing in knowledge. I wish each year brought me a similar emotion.

Having no appetite for late-night homework, final exams, or loads of student debt, I will not be returning to the classroom as a student. Neither will most parents. But you and I can return to shul this week or this year with renewed focus and purpose. And a sense of growth.

I want to share an insight I hope will elevate our understanding of Shabbat. I think many of us intuit Shabbat being the week’s finish line. A day of rest, good food, and time with people we love recharges us for the next week. We believe this because Saturday falls on the “weekend.”

But there’s another way to see it. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in his book Laws of Shabbat shares an amazing Gemara: from the viewpoint of the world, the creation of the six weekdays came before Shabbat. But from the perspective of humankind, who was created on the sixth day, Shabbat came before the six weekdays (B. Talmud Shabbat 69b).

This means that the world knew the six days of the week before Shabbat. But Adam, who was created on Day Six, the first day was Shabbat. The weekdays followed.

Rabbi Melamed writes, “Shabbat is also the anchor and beginning of the next week. From Shabbat we draw spiritual strength for the upcoming week so that we are able to realize, through our activities, the spiritual values that we absorb on Shabbat (7).”

Rabbi Melamed means that Shabbat is also the first day of the week. The day should set the tone for the next six. The values that animate Shabbat – quality time with loved ones, community, prayer, an emphasis on the spiritual – should be activated all week long in some ways. 

I love that he teaches me something new about something that I’ve been doing for so long in the same way. 

As we have only weeks to go before Rosh HaShanah, I hope we can begin to discover a new area of growth so that when the Shofar rings, we feel we are ahead.