Monday, November 1, 2010

Sesame Street’s Grover Asks Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: Why Do People Need a Day of Rest?

Sesame Street's Grover has been to Israel and learned all about Shabbat.  Now he asks a good question:  Why do people need a day of rest?  

And who's responding to Grover?  None other than Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who will be completing his monumental effort of translation and commentary on the Talmud on November 7.  

His mission has been to give Jewish texts and learning back to the Jewish people. To mark this achievement, communities around the world are joining in a Global Day of Jewish Learning next Sunday, November 7.

That day will feature Jewish dialogue and exploration, joining together in celebration of all that unites us.   The conversation that has spanned millennia will resonate at once in community centers, classrooms, and synagogues across the globe.  Sponsors of the day of learning include an impressive list of Jewish religious and cultural organizations, from the Orthodox Union, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, to the Jewish Book Council, Birthright Israel, and Shalom Sesame.

Grover's big question is one of many that are being asked in preparation for the Global Day of Jewish Learning.

The concept is beautifully presented in an 8 minute video below, that weaves together scenes of Jewish learning around the world and a story from the Talmud about Choni the Circle Drawer (Choni Ha-Maagel).
Briefly, A devastating drought had stricken the land of Israel -- a sign, it is said, of a generation burdened by the consequences of not following the Torah. Threatened by famine, the people turned to Choni, whose purity and Torah wisdom left him untainted by the shortcomings of his generation.
"Choni," the people said, "Pray that rain should fall."
Choni prayed. But nothing happened.

Drawing a circle with a twig, the Mishnah relates, he stepped inside and took an oath not to go out until the people received rain.

It rained, but in very little drops -- enough to release Choni from his oath. But not enough, said the people, to fill their dried-up wells and avert famine.

So rather than step out, Choni raised his prayer (and his chutzpah) to a higher level: "G-d, this is not what I asked for!"

While the citizens held their breath to await the response, it began to rain. But the drops, our sages say, were as "big as the opening of a jug and no drop less than a log."

Choni understood that since the time of the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people still were unable to handle either an abundance or lack of blessings. So with unprecedented chutzpah, he again dared say, "G-d, this is not what I asked for!"

And it rained a normal rain. Except that the rain continued for so long that the people began fleeing to higher elevations. Choni recognized that the people still had not merited truly proper rains, and made an offering on their behalf. And that's good for Choni, because his daring prayers almost earned him the highest form of exile from the community.

"Were you not Choni I would pronounce a ban upon you," declared Shimon ben Shetach, the head of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal body of the time. "But what shall I do to you," Shetach continued, "that you misbehave before G-d and He fulfills your wish -- like a son who misbehaves towards his father and his father fulfills his wish."

From that time on, our sages say, Choni was known as Choni HaMe'Agel (Choni the Circle-Maker).

Each community throughout the world will decide what their Global Day event will look like. The structure of each event will depend on audience, resources and local interest. Some communities in North America are working with their local Jewish book fair to develop a meaning Global Day experience while others might be creating events around PJ Library or other adult learning opportunities in their own communities.

Every community event will be unique -- some might be an all day experience while others only an hour or two. For some, the Global Day will be a first-time learning experience; for others who learn regularly, this may be their first opportunity to learn in a large group setting. For still others, communal learning may be a regular practice and it will be the international achdut, or unifying aspect, that provides meaning. The important of the Global Day is bringing together people from all walks of life and providing a Jewish learning experience. 

So what was Rabbi Steinsaltz's answer to Grover?  Here it is:
The day of rest is a comparatively new idea, the influence of the Jewish Shabbat on the world. From a secular perspective, a rest day breaks the killing routine of life. Even when we can’t really relax, the day still lessens the unbearable burden of duties and demands, orders and work.
However, when the day of rest is a holy day, it has the power of re-infusing some spirit of life into an age that is, in many ways, empty of any exalted feeling. Such a day revives the dormant soul, opening our eyes so that we can watch for something higher.

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