Reflecting on my sabbatical
May, 7 2021
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
1. We don’t have to go searching for some magical place to feel alive and connected.
2. It’s important to play with time, when time often plays with us.
3. Shabbat comes every week.
My sabbatical was supposed to begin in Israel. My brother Dan was being ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem, and the timing — at the end of December — was set to coincide. But Omicron hit and Israel’s travel ban was reinstated. After two failed applications and an exceptions committee review, my family was denied entry. The allowance for beauty contestants to fly from all over the world to Israel, flocking to Eilat, created a jarring picture of priorities in, well, a jarring world. Too bad I thought. I didn’t apply for the Miss Universe pageant.
Like we did for his wedding earlier in the pandemic, our family watched Dan’s ordination ceremony on Zoom. It was bittersweet. We felt his Torah beaming through the screen, felt buoyed by these new Masorti rabbis, and felt wrapped by an immense sadness. The Zoom screen flashing “unstable connection” only reinforced my own feeling: connected and not, missing this milestone and excited for am yisrael. Hey, I thought, I’m on sabbatical. I’m supposed to feel untethered, able to do anything! But there was the reminder, that to feel alive and connected meant feeling all of the above— all of life’s feels seeking attention. There was no magical place to be but in the moment.
As Covid worsened, other travel plans were upended. I didn’t make it to Israel at all and instead planted roots in new communities and cities I’d visited but never lived in. I had thought about spending part of sabbatical in Madrid, where my grandparents lived as a young couple when my grandfather was in the US foreign service, a rare assignment for Jews, right after World War II. But in Spain’s place came— for a long stretch— Seattle. There I felt the rhythms of a regular yoga practice, the thrill of skiing, the access of the Seattle Public Library, and best of all: connection. There was time with dear friends and meeting new friends who became chosen family over meals, devouring fresh pizza at the Ballard Farmers Market, holding onto scents and tastes of local bakeries, and taking walks that went nowhere and everywhere.
As I got to play with time and play with friends, I realized no one else was on sabbatical! And life didn’t stop for anyone. Life was changing for one of my dearest friends whose entire family was a huge driving force to come to Seattle. She responded selflessly to a parent’s illness, unplanned and unpredicted, that meant we had less time together. But they were exactly where they needed to be and holding onto life as it was calling them. In the last minute nature of one of my sabbatical changes, a rabbinic colleague and her husband opened their family’s home to me during their vacation. They became extended family, as I would return to hang out on Saturday afternoons with them and their kids. Another colleague had an open door policy to just hang and relax and make her backyard another home where I could lose track of time with her high school teens. A new friend — a Jesuit priest working at a local university— became a trusted confidant for wonderful, rich conversations on life across faith lines. And a friend from a Collegeville Institute writing workshop held months before the world turned upside down, helped make so much turn right side up — from touring the bustle of Pike Place Market to exploring the old Jewish neighborhoods and important social change work in the city.
My learning deepened through different pursuits online and in person. I started taking virtual guitar lessons and signed up for Zoom Mussar classes, a practice of Jewish ethical character traits, that has become embedded at Adath. I started with the Mussar Institute’s Virtual Kallah in January, that drew over 100 participants here and in Israel. For several months on Zoom, a small cohort of LGBTQ rabbis and educators learned from and offered a queer critique of a Mussar curriculum through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. And as I sat at a kitchen table, housesitting for new friends, I studied Gemara and the role of judges with Svara, a queer yeshiva, with the teacher in Jerusalem and students across the US. I found a study partner for several weeks through the Center for Contemporary Mussar, basing my learning in the same curriculum that has guided many of our Mussar classes at Adath.
And in person, I felt grateful for opportunities that I didn’t know would come to be. Text study and professional skills development filled several days in Baltimore with forty rabbis at the Rabbinic Training Institute (RTI) sponsored by JTS, and I flew to Los Angeles to celebrate with Rabbi Kravitz and Cindy as Rabbi Kravitz became the president of the international Rabbinical Assembly. The Hadar Rabbinic Intensive gave me the time to absorb three uninterrupted days of yeshiva-style learning with rabbis and cantors in New York, and I built in time with my parents and sister and grandmother in Westchester without feeling rushed to be anywhere else but with my family. The same felt true in other places, letting go of time with friends and/or their kids who are like nieces and nephews. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality alumni retreat felt spacious: prayer, the study of Jewish mysticism, and movement, mornings and afternoons spent in silence, gave permission to be with time rather than control it. Throughout it all I continued writing and my work on the editorial committee of the new weekday version of Siddur Lev Shalem, aimed to elevate daily prayer in synagogues, day schools, and summer camps. I didn’t get to all the destinations, but where I grounded myself I found beauty and frustration and newness in the ordinary. That made sabbatical time holy time.
I found the joy of davening with different Jewish communities— sometimes being asked to lead davening but also confronting my own complex relationship with prayer, quietly, in pews much like where each of you is sitting today. I was able to get outdoors in nature, so much the source of my spirituality, alone and with others. Many locals questioned my winter choice of the Pacific Northwest, but I loved noticing the different climate. I traded snow for rain and our two winter options— cold and colder— for temperate and overcast. To make me feel at home, Seattle hit record lows my first few days in December and a few inches of snow paralyzed the city for a full week. Frustratingly I couldn’t move very far. But that meant I couldn’t move very far from the stunning beauty of Queen Anne’s cobblestone streets turned into a winter wonderland. Still I got to hike and lose track of time amidst lush green trees that clipped gray sky, and drive hours for a simple overnight by the undisturbed Washington Coast. My feet planted in the sand and shifted to the will of the Pacific tide.
Returning home to Minneapolis in April, I was saved the last blast of a long winter. I returned to a landscape that looked eerily the same as it did when I left in December. Despite that, it is really good to be back. I couldn’t have taken sabbatical without the support of Rabbi Kravitz and Hazzan Dulkin, our remarkable staff, and our lay leaders who recognize the importance of the clergy taking a step back for renewal and learning — and for the system to adapt and grow in healthy ways as a result.
Last Monday I returned to a rhythm I love. I was leading Havdalah for our preschool kids in the Gan. We were talking about the sadness of saying goodbye to Shabbat and doing so with fire and grape juice and spices. I asked the kids if they thought we’d ever get to have Shabbat again. One of the kids, true to form, shouted “No!” But an older kid quickly jumped in, like a bat kol, a heavenly voice. “Rabbi, Shabbat comes every week. Don’t worry.”
They’re both right. No two Shabbatot will ever be the same, but Shabbat does come back again and again. Shabbat is in some ways a mini sabbatical for all of us, a chance to feel the holiness, the difference, of not being beholden to the same patterns. That we can play with time when time often plays with us. That in stepping back we don’t become untethered. The responsibilities of life are always present. But we can better appreciate our ordinary routine when we lose track of time a bit, when we get to play with it differently. We eat differently. We dress differently. We talk differently. We live in community differently.
Sabbatical is not always the trip to Madrid or Israel we imagined. Sadly sabbatical was not the high point of a brother’s ordination I’d been looking forward to for years or an Omicron-free existence. Because life is often not the — fill in the blank — that we thought it would be. As soon as we start writing life’s script, the editing begins.
We’re reminded as much in Parshat Kedoshim, when Leviticus 19 opens to tell us “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy…” only to be followed in the next verse …Keep my sabbaths, I the Lord am your God.”
The pursuit of holiness, framed as “you shall” captures the imperfection of life’s pursuits. Of never fully “achieving" whatever the “it” is — holiness, serenity, untethered reality. The commentary in Etz Hayim says, “To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary.”
The great Italian commentator Sforno teaches hundreds of years ago that the plural use of the word Shabbtotai/sabbaths means that it’s not just the Shabbat of creation as we know it each week. But we’re meant to keep many different ways of rest: the rest of the land, shmittah, and the release of money owed, and of course what we’re doing in this sanctuary today. He reflects,
ואת שבתותי תשמורו שלא על שבת בראשית בלבד הזהיר אבל על כל מיני השבת שהם שבת בראשית ושבת הארץ ושמיטת כספים המעידים על חדוש העולם.
Perhaps we add sabbatical to that list. Sabbatical was set apart from the ordinary to appreciate the ordinary. I got to feel alive and connected and play with time differently, wherever I was. And return here, and return to Shabbat.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his famous work, The Sabbath:
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
As I leave the world of sabbatical, I will try to be more attuned to the holiness in time that it gave me. And I hope for each of us:
We don’t have to go searching for some magical place to feel alive and connected.
It’s important to play with time, when time often plays with us.
And that Shabbat comes every week. Shabbat Shalom.
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