June 12, 2013
Transition is excerpted with permission from Debra Darvick's recently published book, This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection & Joy.
It's a unique sound, that sharp hiss of a Havdalah candle being extinguished in a little spill of wine. The sound is biting and somehow creates a fitting final moment in the ceremony that separates us from Shabbat and transitions us back into the week. I can't say why exactly, but performing the Havdalah service is probably my favorite Jewish ritual. Havdalah connotes the same kinds of emotions that I imagine one has at a Jewish summer camp — that strong sense of shared community and intimacy. You are with people with whom you share values and fondness. You're in the position of acknowledging God, the Sabbath, and the relationship between God and man.
I am a child of the parsonage and while I have been out of my parsonage home many more years than I was in it, those were formative years nevertheless. My father was a Methodist minister and when I was growing up it was common for us to have people in our home for meals on a regular basis. Many times people would sing together after dinner. There is nothing in Christian life that is a counterpoint to Havdalah, no ritual acknowledging Sabbath's end, but I remember from childhood a unique rhythm to the Sundays that anchored our week: religious school followed by the worship service; a special Sunday dinner in our home or with a congregant's family; visiting with church members and friends; and then the return to church for evening worship.
Being a child of the parsonage also meant that I grew up surrounded by an inescapable emphasis on God's role in the world and in our lives. It has been my experience that for many Jews, there doesn't seem to be that same dimension of a personal God that was part of my life as a child. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to Havdalah. It reminds us that there is indeed a relationship between us and God; and that when we move back into the week, we do so with God's mandate to make this world a better place — to be a vehicle of gladness and joy and peace.
For me, those things come primarily through acts of kindness. Havdalah is our reminder to go into the new week with performing kindnesses at the forefront.
Havdalah literally means separation and in many ways, because I married a Jewish man and we have raised our children as Jews, I have been separated from the religion of my childhood. We waited many years to have children while we weighed how we would handle religion in our house. Ultimately it came down to one of us giving up our preferences for the good of the family. I moved into Jewish life doing all the "normal things" — going to services, attending classes, and becoming involved in many aspects of temple life. When our children were born there was a bris and special baby naming ceremonies. My children's bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are cherished memories. It was very affirming for me, because I had assumed the responsibility of raising Jewish children. I take great pride in my son's and daughter's comfort and sense of belonging within the Jewish community.
My own life has been greatly enriched by living Jewishly. The Prophets have always been my favorite part of the Hebrew Bible, because they deal so beautifully with how to live. There is such a strong thread of social justice in Judaism. Taking care of those less fortunate is explicit; it's not just something you are supposed to do out of love as it is in Christian theology, but it's commanded — whether you feel drawn to help others or not is immaterial. It is through people that God works in this world. This was how my father, and my mother, lived each day of their lives. Their example is probably one more reason why Havdalah has resonated with me so much over the years. Havdalah separates us from the beauty of Shabbat, all the while sending us forward with a keen reminder of God's mandate in our lives. At the moment of that biting sound when flame hits liquid and is extinguished, I am moved into the new week. Perhaps, subliminally, I do so linked to the parsonage and to the relationship with God I have carried with me since childhood.