Shabbos Parashas Lech Lecha was historic for the South Africa kehillah. Under the banner of “The Shabbos Project,” thousands upon thousands of Jews throughout the country kept Shabbos for the very first time. South African Jews of all ages and stages, from all walks of life and backgrounds, across all levels of mitzvah observance and involvement, joined together to keep Shabbos. The breadth and depth of support for The Shabbos Project has been quite breath-taking.
The Shabbos Project reminds us of the power of the Torah to change the world. We can never underestimate the strength of the Torah to transform people and society. The Gemara (Zevachim 116a) says that the verse “Hashem has given His nation strength” (Tehillim 29) refers to the fact that Hashem has given us the Torah. The Torah is synonymous with strength. The Gemara says further that the sounds of the giving of the Torah were heard from one end of the world to the other. The world literally shook when the Torah was given to Klal Yisrael.
And now, the mitzvah of Shabbos has shaken the very foundations of South African Jewry. Inspiring stories are pouring in from across the community about how moved people were by the experience of keeping Shabbos for the first time. Stories have come in of people who barely make it to shul on Yom Kippur, yet kept this Shabbos properly. They describe how it has impacted their lives in a powerful and positive way, and how the experience opened their eyes to the joy, beauty, and light of the mitzvah.
The Shabbos Project reminds us of the power of Torah to change the world, and particularly the mitzvah of Shabbos. Having faith in Hashem means understanding that the Torah, which He gave us, is the greatest and most powerful gift on earth. To really have faith in the Torah is to believe that Hashem gave us His mitzvos for all times and all places. There are some who, when confronting a secular world, feel the need to dilute and apologize for their observance and attempt to make it indistinguishable from modern culture and values. The Shabbos Project shows that there is another path: to be proud and proactive about presenting the Torah and mitzvos in a way that is accessible and relevant to modern society, but at the same time completely pure and true to itself.
The Shabbos Project is about the entire community keeping Shabbos properly, in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch. This approach is predicated on the belief that the real energy and kedushah of Shabbos and its capacity to impact are directly dependent on its being observed correctly. If a mitzvah is diluted and reduced to a shadow of itself, it surely cannot have an impact. Only when it is done properly can we rely on the power of a mitzvah to change the world. This is the meaning of the language of every pre-mitzvah brachah: “… asher kiddeshanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu — Hashem, Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos….” Every mitzvah that we perform brings kedushah into our world — this holiness has a power to change people and society.
The Shabbos Project teaches us that the best way to promote Torah is in its purest form, in a program of action combined with learning Torah. We distributed a great deal of learning material explaining the halachah and hashkafah of Shabbos, but at the same time gave people something practical to do. This is the power of na’aseh v’nishmah, which the Gemara (Shabbos 88a) describes as a great “secret” that was revealed to Klal Yisrael.
The Shabbos Project has demonstrated that the power, energy, and the light of a mitzvah have a dramatic impact for the good; this applies especially to the mitzvah of Shabbos, which has been part of the very fabric of the universe from the beginning of Creation, and is the only mitzvah the Gemara (Beitzah 16a) calls a matanah — a gift. It is an incredible gift to Klal Yisrael, and if people experience its kedushah, beauty and power in full, they are inspired, as thousands in our kehillah in South Africa were last Shabbos. “Taamu ure’u ki tov — Taste it and see, for it is good” (Tehillim 34).
Rabbi Ze’ev Goldstein is the Chief Rabbi of South Africa.