Can you see what this image, created by Anya Ulinich (speaking Sunday at RS) depicts? A woman dressed in a business suit riding a Shabbat candle-fueled challah! The picture serves as an illustration for Susan Pashman’s column in the Jewish Forward, “My Big Sabbath Lie–And the Joy It Brought.
When Susan Pashman first became a single mother and sole wage-earner, she decided she needed to change careers in order to provide for her 2 sons. So she went to law school and then secured a position in a prestigious firm. That’s when she realized another problem: If she was going to work the expected 90-hour week, how would she find the time to provide a loving, caring home for her children? Just then, Susan witnessed another member of the firm’s incoming cohort, explain to the boss that he was an observant Jew, and needed to leave early on Fridays and stay home on Saturdays, in order to observe the Sabbath.
Susan tells the boss, she observes the Sabbath. (She had never before, in her life, observed the Sabbath.) But that Friday, Susan leaves early. She goes straight to the bakery for a challah. Then to the liquor store for some Maneshevitz. At the market she asks for help finding the thick white candles. Susan returns home to ask her nanny to help her iron a tablecloth and make Shabbat dinner. That night, she makes a covenant with her sons that whatever the week brings, she will be home for Shabbat dinner, and so will they. She repeats the week after. And the week after that. They invite friends and neighbors. Week after week, Shabbat becomes a powerful presence. Year after year, shabbat sustains their family. When Susan’s sons grow up and move out, she continues Shabbat dinner, inviting friends and carving out time for reflection. She considers her lie about the Sabbath the best choice she ever made as a mother.
So, what about this lie? What does Judaism have to say? Is a lie justifiable if it’s for a greater purpose? If it doesn’t hurt anyone? Jewish tradition prohibits a lie told only for our selfish benefit. An 18th century teacher of character development, now known as Mussar, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, goes so far to say that, when we lie, we contract a spiritual illness. Jewish wisdom urges us to be truthful in order to protect our relationships and our own spiritual well-being. Yet, according to Torah, the approach is not pure. There is murkiness in our relationship with some truths. Especially when Shalom Bayit, peace in the home or in the family, is at stake.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, offers an intriguing lesson. After Abraham and Sarah learn they will have a child, God hears Sarah laugh at the idea and say, “Really, with my husband, so old?!” God repeats Sarah’s comment to Abraham, but makes a small adjustment to the story. God says to Abraham, Sarah questions whether you will be able to have a child, because she is so old. A small lie, told by God, to protect Abraham’s relationship with Sarah. From this story, tradition concludes: Shalom Bayit, peace in the home, can sometimes be more important than telling the truth.
The story of Susan Pashman’s Shabbat lie involves Shalom Bayit, yet it’s different. It’s a story of a different kind of Shalom Bayit situation; it’s also a story of a different kind of lie. For her lie is not a lie for long. She makes a change. In her initial dishonesty, another truth is born. Susan Pashman transforms her lie, as she transforms her life. Why didn’t she wait a week and then tell her boss about Shabbat after she had already honestly begun to observe it? Who knows.
Maybe saying she observed Shabbat was the only way she knew to push herself into shabbat observance. Perhaps that initial lie was what Susan needed to stretch herself, to begin her next steps, to discover something that was somehow meant to be.
The 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great teacher of Jewish thought, distinguished between fate and destiny. Fate is God (I’ll add: some of us may call it luck) casting us into a particular dimension of life we cannot control. Destiny is “an active existence in which one confronts the environment into which he or she is cast… One’s mission is to turn fate into destiny, an existence that is passive and influenced to an existence that is active and influential.”
Susan Pashman’s fate brought divorce, single parenthood, the risk of not being present for her family. Susan’s destiny? She challenged herself to discover the next steps on her path. She pushed herself outside her professional, personal and spiritual comfort zones. Active and influential in her own life, Susan confronted the environment into which she was cast.
I won’t encourage you to lie, but I do think the story challenges us to ask ourselves: what in our lives do we need to provide, for ourselves and for others. How do we need to push ourselves outside of our professional, personal and spiritual comfort zones.
What in our fate is casting us into a particular dimension of life we cannot control. And how will we shape our destiny, actively confronting the environment into which we are cast…?
If we are to shape our destinies, we have decisions to make, habits to break, actions to take. Some of us need to push ourselves to provide more: to invest in our friendships, to find moments for reflection and holiness, to carve time for family, for health, for study, for feeding the poor.
Some of us need to push ourselves to accept more: to embrace who we are, to see beauty in the mirror, or worth in our contributions in this world.
Some of us need to push ourselves to discover more expressions of Shabbat. To heed the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-Am who said: more than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. Only when we stretch ourselves in our own Shabbat observance, will it have a powerful presence in our week.
Wherever in our lives, we need that push, wherever we need to take a bold next step, may we turn an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential. May we turn fate into destiny.