This sermon was delivered at our Friday Night Shabbat service on May 24th. You can watch it on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on our podcast, Contact Chai.

There is a curious term in the Torah: shabbat shabbaton. A rough translation would be “a sabbath of sabbaths.” If you open up a King James Bible, you’ll find “a sabbath of solemn rest.” One by the Jewish Publication Society, “a sabbath of complete rest.” Or we can look at Everett Fox’s idiosyncratic translation in the Schocken Bible: a “sabbath, sabbath-ceasing.” Shabbat shabbaton means something like: a sabbath-y sabbath. Very sabbath. The most sabbath. It is only used to describe three periods of time. One, Shabbat itself. Two, Yom Kippur. And three, found in our reading this week, the shemitah year – year seven of a seven year cycle, when our ancestors would let their fields lie fallow and live off whatever the land produced of its own volition (the last shemitah year was 5782, or 2021-22).

This is in contrast to the other holy days in our calendar, which are simply described as a shabbaton. A time of rest – but one that lacks the totality required of the three aforementioned moments.

The rabbis offer various commentary on this term. Rashi proposes that shabbat shabbaton denotes a purposeful, rather than incidental, rest. Ibn Ezra teaches that it should be a rest of both body and soul. Sforno offers that it’s an injunction against any activity that would disturb our rest, even one that might technically be permitted – a family of behavior that the rabbis call shvut.

But I was curious, why these three moments: Shabbat, Yom Kippur, and the shemitah year? What do they have in common?

One is that they all require preparation in advance. Shabbat doesn’t just happen. You all know this already. You had to show up (or tune in) tonight. You chose to put work down, to set your phone aside, to carve out a little time to sit with yourself and the people you love in a world that equates our value with our productivity, abetted by technologies that constantly demand our attention. Perhaps you are more traditionally observant and spent the afternoon cleaning your home, or preparing meals, or calling your family and friends before the sun set. Regardless, we all had to do something to enter the head-and-heartspace of Shabbat.

Yom Kippur also requires advance preparation. First, a pro-tip: if you’re going to fast, you should drink a lot of water and eat plenty of complex carbohydrates beforehand. But the spiritual work of Yom Kippur also begins prior to the day itself. The opening declaration of Kol Nidre is preceded by ten days of repentance, the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, a period of time when we begin the process of reflecting on our behavior, of reaching out to others, and asking for forgiveness.

And of course, it was necessary to store enough food to augment whatever could be gathered from the land before the shemitah year.

Yet another commonality is that each of these are times of preparation in their own right. The shemitah year allowed arable land to recover, replenish its nutrients, and eliminate pests. The fallow fields would become fertile again, capable of producing richer and more abundant harvests in the coming years.

Yom Kippur is also a day of potential, not-yet-realized action. Through the liturgy, through moments of silent reflection and communal penance, we are given the opportunity to set an intention for how we are going to do things differently in the year to come. The thing is: we can’t change our behavior yet. You’re at the Copernicus Center with me, and Rabbi Lizzi, and the Davening Team, and over a thousand of your favorite Mishkanites. If you want to be nicer to that one coworker, or gentler with your partner, or more conscientious about calling your mother – you need to wait, until the chance to do something different than what you might have done before presents itself.

And Shabbat is both the rest we need leaving the week behind us and the rest we need heading into the week ahead of us. It’s a time for reconnecting to ourselves, to our loved ones, to each other. It gives us the space to reorient our hearts toward that which is most important in our lives: the things that bring us joy, or comfort, or courage – the things that allow the seeds of love to germinate, to grow and blossom. In a world where we might feel like we’re always fighting, Shabbat reminds us what we’re actually fighting for.

Every Thursday at morning minyan we do a quick dive into this week’s Torah portion (join us Monday through Friday, 8 am, online). Yesterday, we investigated the term shabbat shabbaton, its meaning, and how it might be applied across these three seemingly disparate periods of time. While talking about the shemitah year, someone noted that people living in ancient Israel were largely subsistence farmers. What exactly did they do for an entire year while their fields lay fallow? Farming is back-breaking, time-consuming work that keeps people busy from sunup to sun down. And suddenly, they had twelve months with significantly fewer tasks to fill their days.

The same can be asked of us: what do we do while the fields lie fallow, or in the quiet moments of Yom Kippur, or in the spaciousness of Shabbat? 

Our tradition provides one answer. We tell stories.

Our rituals are built around storytelling. Of course there is reading from the Torah, tracing and retracing the foundational narrative of our people from the creation of adam, the first human, to the advent of am Yisrael, this nation of god-wrestlers. There are also the stories encoded in our liturgy. Fragments of the Song of the Sea, sung by our ancestors after liberation from slavery in Egypt. Prayers written by the first generations of rabbis, their words building palaces in time amidst the rubble of our holy places. Poems composed in the royal courts of Andalusia or the study halls of Sfat or the shtetls of Ashkenaz.

But there are also our own stories, the ones we tell to our friends on the walk home from services or to our loved ones gathered around the Shabbat table. A shabbat shabbaton gives us space to remember and reminisce, to speak and to share, to listen and to learn. Storytelling is the happy consequence of having enough time, which is itself something we must prepare and make space for.

There is a lot of awful happening in the world right now. These are the stories we consume most often, through the news or social media. I can feel like a persistent narrative of things going from bad to worse – and when there’s a moment, just a moment, that I get a glimmer of hope a new tragedy occurs. Alongside our own heartbreak, the stresses of our day-to-day lives, the challenges of illness or unemployment or separation or loss, it can be hard to imagine that things can or will get better. But this is why telling other stories, ones that we don’t find in social media posts and headlines, is important.

I had the chance to learn with Dr. Marshall Duke this past week. He’s a professor of psychology at Emory University, who studies the impact that stories can have on the human psyche. He shared a recent study, which showed that children who know their family narrative have greater psychological resilience than those who do not. The power of a family narrative, Duke noted, is that it is neither an ascending story (i.e. things were terrible, but now they’re great) or a descending story (i.e. things were wonderful, but now they’re awful) – but an oscillating narrative: with both good and bad, sometimes happening in sequence and sometimes happening simultaneously.

The expectation in life, he said, is that there will be good times – but those will be temporary. And there will be bad times – and those will also be temporary. The lesson is that we, as a family, have found a way to get through each of them. In our history, and more importantly in our future, things will be okay.

The story of the Jewish people, our family, is an oscillating narrative. The Torah is not a straight line from oppression to liberation, wandering to homecoming – but one that veers and vacillates between all of these things. Dancing as a free people on the shore of the Reed Sea is quickly followed by the murderous pursuit of Amalek, who picks off our weakest and most vulnerable. The lack of faith expressed through the golden calf, and the terrible consequences that follow, comes just before the divine presence fills the Mishkan, our ancestors living in intimate proximity to God. Our people leave the land of Israel to return to the land of Israel to be displaced from the land of Israel to return again (and again, and again).

And yet, at the end of the story – which is this moment, right now – we are here.

I cannot guarantee that things will be okay tomorrow. I can’t guarantee that they’ll be okay next year. But I do know, listening to the stories of our people, that they will be okay again – if only we continue to make the journey, if only we continue to put one foot in front of the other. This is what our stories teach us, the lesson of our history. The important thing, especially in moments like these, is to take the time to tell them.

This does not mean that loss isn’t painful. This doesn’t mean that our heartbreak isn’t any less real. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to listen to the difficult stories of this past week, of these eight months, of times when our lives have been shattered, left in fragments – to bear witness, to hold one another with care and compassion, to help piece things back together. The narrative of our people is a reminder that there is something on the other side of tragedy.

And in moments of happiness (which will happen), our stories remind us to hold our blessings close with intention and with gratitude because those don’t last forever either. The reality is that we usually live in both places: grief and joy, despair and hope, brokenness and a sense of being whole. Our stories help us make sense of this phrenic wilderness, showing us where we have come from and pointing the path toward where we are going.

And so we are invited into the spaciousness of Shabbat. We are given this time of a shabbat shabbaton: a solemn rest, a complete rest, a rest of ceasing. I want to encourage you to keep your phone off a little longer. To leave that to do list until tomorrow (it’ll still be there, don’t worry). Take the long walk home. And as you do, tell a story. It can be a story about our people. It can be a story about your family. It can be a story about you. If it’s a story about something good, what happened when the good ended? And if it’s a story about something bad, what was waiting when the bad passed you by?

As we set down our tools and our to dos, to sit and share our stories with each other: our words can become the nourishment for the fallow fields of our hearts and our minds, the seeds that will grow over the coming days and weeks into a memory of our resilience, into a foundation for courageous action, into the kind of broad vision that allows us to maintain hope; a rich and bountiful harvest that will sustain us through whatever lies ahead.