After Rosh HaShanah, a friend of mine approached me and told me that something was bothering him. This friend does not observe Shabbat, but does observe Rosh HaShanah. He told me that over Rosh HaShanah he forgot to keep a light on in his closet for reading, and couldn’t watch television or go on the phone or computer either. Because he had nothing to do, he tried to go to sleep early, but couldn't fall asleep. He then began to think about what he should be doing with his life. He wondered, why are we here?
I have thought about what he said to me and have realized that, in fact, he had experienced what Shabbat truly is. In Parashat Noach, Hashem instructs Noach to build a boat to protect himself from the coming flood which will wipe out the world. The Slonimer Rebbe cites a passage from the Zohar which tells us that just as the boat protected Noach from the raging storm outside, Shabbat is "protection" from the world around us. The world Noach lived in had become filled with corruption. Ramban explains that everyone would steal from one another, leading to the formation of a society with little to no order. He clarifies that the reason their stealing was considered such a terrible sin was that common sense should have dictated to them that it is wrong, and that it creates a chaotic environment. But they refused to listen to their common sense.
Our world is a fast paced one. We are constantly busy and forever moving. This is the way the world works, and we know that we must keep up with it and juggle all of our responsibilities. Shabbat is a great gift from Hashem. The world continues to move around us, but on Shabbat, we rest. We demonstrate that we trust that Hashem runs the world and that we will be secure independent of our abstention from our weekly activities. A friend of mine who attends Columbia Graduate School told me that when leaving school one Friday, he told a non-Jewish woman to have a good weekend. She responded, “Have a good Shabbat,” and added that she wished she had Shabbat. My friend asked, “Don't you have the weekend off to rest as well?” She said, “Theoretically, but I go out with friends every Friday night and Saturday. Even if I rest on the weekend, I do not feel rejuvenated because my weekend feels like a continuation of the week.”
I believe that this woman clarifies the essence and beauty of Shabbat. Just as Hashem tells Noach to build a boat, so, too, we are told to build a “boat.” Shabbat is that boat. R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his Mesillat Yesharim notes that in Parashat Shemot, Par’oh states (Shemot 5:9) "intensify the men’s labor" in order to make the Jewish People so tired and overworked that they would have no time or energy to think of rebelling. Our world is now moving faster than ever. Everything has been made faster and more easily accessible. This is positive phenomenon in many ways, but also makes us move more quickly. Shabbat is the day when we put everything aside and focus on Hashem. It is a time to reflect on our lives. The Boat of Shabbat allows us to tread through the waters of the week, and then reassess and rejuvenate.
The non-Jewish woman had the right idea when she wished she had a day like Shabbat. Shabbat is not just a day of physical rest. On it, we must rest from all of our distractions. If we do so, maybe we will hear and see things that we have been too busy to realize. Hashem is everywhere, and we can find him in everything, but we first need to know to look for Him. A story about the Kotzker Rebbe illustrates this point. A student traveled a long distance to learn with the Kotzker. Upon his arrival, he met with the Rebbe and told him how far he had come to learn. The Kotzker asked, “What did you come to find?” “I came to find Hashem,” he answered. “How foolish,” the Kotzker said, “Hashem is everywhere. You didn't have to travel here to find Him. Once you find Him yourself, you’ll see Him everywhere.” So too, on Shabbat we should merit to truly rest and connect with The Master of the World.