When I tune my guitar, I can hear the second it slides perfectly into tune. It’s a minute adjustment, really, and yet there’s a huge difference between being pretty much in tune and being perfectly tuned. There’s a sweet spot, you see. Just beyond the sweet spot you might hear the correct pitch, but you won’t hear the depth of resonance that the sweet spot gets you. When the string is at the perfect tension, all of the other strings sing when the one string is plucked.
My life doesn’t resonate like that yet, Jewishly speaking. I thought that by this stage in my life it would, but it doesn’t.
I’m very, very close. We have a kosher kitchen (although still not kosher by some standards, and sometimes I wonder why I bother), we celebrate the arrival of Shabbat with all the traditional blessings and foods and songs, our children demonstrate time and again that they understand tzedakah (charitable giving), chesed (acts of kindness) and hachnassat orchim (welcoming guests). We observe and celebrate the holidays. We attend shul some of the time (less often than weekly, more often that just on holidays). Our home is full of beautiful Jewish objects and books. I sing Hebrew and Yiddish lullabies to my babies.
But it’s still not quite right.
If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you already know that I’ve experimented with different levels of Jewish observance before. Tune up… no, too sharp. Tune back down… nope. Flat. I feel the need to experiment again and I have this strange sense of urgency, as if time is running out, as if I have to be fully settled and decided in my Jewish observance so that I know exactly what I’m teaching my kids. As if I would always express my Judaism the same way for the rest of my life.
For a long time, I’ve yearned for a Shabbat that is more… more complete, more peaceful, more refreshing. More Shabbat-y. It’s hard to achieve alone, and I’ve dragged Mr. December along at times but ultimately accepted that I can’t push him into something he doesn’t want as much as I do. Still tuning: we go to shul, but it doesn’t really work right now with the kids’ naptimes. Still tuning: I turn off the laptop and put it away for all of Shabbat, only to discover that without plans to go out or see friends, it’s a long day that the kids and I could come to resent.
There are moments that I think I hear the sweet spot: I’ll be baking challah, or taking food to a lonely neighbour, or sitting in the window seat just reading on a Shabbat afternoon, and I’m precisely the Jew I want to be. But something shifts, and I can’t get it back. So I go back to tuning.
It would help to know precisely what pitch I’m trying to hit. Did you know that North American orchestras tune to A440, but many European orchestras tune to A438? (You might ask what the difference is, and aside from the obvious – two vibrations per second – the answer is, nothing that the average ear would notice.) It’s basically the same pitch, comes across the same way to most people’s ear, but if you’re tuning to 440 and you’re at 438, it just isn’t right. Jewish observance can be like that. Shabbat can look like Shabbat, but the minutiae – do you host other people or do you accept invitations and eat out? sing any music that makes you happy, or just Shabbat music? – well, the minutiae can make it fall flat.
I’ve just realized that this is sort of an absurd post. Tuning is important, but it’s not something you do and then forget about for the rest of your life (or even the rest of the week). A well-constructed instrument should certainly stay in tune for a while, but the strings stretch and humidity affects the wood, and daily (or hourly) readjustments might be necessary to keep that sweet spot.
Sometimes I just have to give up tuning my guitar, accept that it’s “good enough”, and go ahead and play even though my ear is telling me that the music would be so perfect if I just kept seeking the sweet spot. That’s how I’ve been living recently – life goes on, Shabbat comes every week, and even though my soul thirsts for the sweet spot, I’ve had to make do with what we’re doing right now. But it doesn’t resonate the way it ought to. So I go back to tuning.
There are times when it all becomes muddled, the distinction between pitches becomes so minute that I’m not sure what I’m hearing anymore. When that happens I have to de-tune the string drastically – take it way out of range – and then bring it back in order to regain my ear. Do I need to do that with Shabbat as well? Should I drop back to just Friday night dinners and then run errands and use the computer on Saturday? And if I were to build my Shabbat day from scratch, what should I add first?
And, finally, sometimes I can’t get the guitar tuned to my satisfaction no matter what I do. That’s when I hand it over to someone else, perhaps a better musician or just someone with a fresh ear. And so… that’s what I’ll do. I’m handing it over to my readers. Please comment and tell me: if you became Shabbat Observant (halachically or not) at some point, how did you get into it? What obstacles did you face, and how did you address them? And if you’ve always been Shabbat Observant, just tell me… what is your favourite part of Shabbat? What new traditions or activities should I try?
The Shabbat that just ended was a bit flat for me, and my soul is cringing a bit in response. Will someone please hand me a tuning fork?