The Challenge of Modern Jewish Practice (or An Elul Apology)

The phone rang loudly in our house. My middle son jumped up and dashed to get it, picked up the call, and began to chat with one of his friends. The problem, though, was that it was Saturday evening and we were in the middle of singing the blessings for Havdalah as we transitioned out of Shabbat.

This being the third (and most disruptive) interference with my attempt to get the family to participate in Havdalah, a service that takes no more than five minutes to complete, I admittedly lost my composure. After some yelling and some more cooling off time, we managed to finish the prayers about 30 minutes later. It took me even longer to understand just why I had gotten so upset.

I take very seriously my commitment to leading an observant life within a modern, secularized world. I like dichotomy, nuance, and shades of grey. Part of why I relish identifying with the Conservative Movement is because I am constantly challenged to figure out how to apply tradition to the modern world in which we live. It is also why I am so drawn to Rabbis Without Borders. But essential to this identity and effort is knowing (or at least electing) when to demarcate a border–when to insist upon investing a time with sanctity. Living in a secular world requires us to carve out non-secular, special, different contexts. If we view our tradition as a technology for meaning-making, it is essential, in my view, that we actualize this technology in designated/sacred times and places through mindfulness. Otherwise we are not living Judaism; we are simply Jews living in secular America.

And that is why I got so upset at my son. It is so easy to let opportunities for sacredness slip by in the modern world. A Saturday evening feels like a mere Saturday evening, and not motz’ei Shabbat (the time immediately following Shabbat), without Havdalah. Just as a Friday night becomes a mere start to the weekend, and not the beginning of Shabbat, without lighting candles, reciting Kiddush, and saying Hamotzi over challah.

But did I overreact?  After all, he is only 9, attends a Jewish day school, and lives under the shadow of having a parent as a rabbi in the community. Plus, I know from my personal history that I found my own way to observance, regardless of what religious practices my parents did or did not observe. Maybe what I felt had less to do with his nonchalant attitude towards our Havdalah and more to do with my own ambiguities as to whether I am doing enough to maintain the slippery boundaries I have erected for myself.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts. But, this being the month of Elul when apologies ought to be free and flowing, I apologized to him for yelling, he apologized to me for not paying better attention, and we shared a beautiful hug of reconciliation together. I couldn’t ask for a better way to enter the week ahead!

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