Walter Sobchak described his Sabbath observance in the Coen brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski by saying, “I don’t roll on Shabbos.” I’m not much of a bowler, but I don’t roll on Shabbos, either, and neither do I fly. This became a problem on Friday afternoon when trying to return home from meetings in Boston for Shabbat with my family. The captain announced over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, there are funnel clouds in D.C. The airports will not open until 9 p.m.” Uh oh. Shabbat was starting a little after 8, and even though I had made it to the airport in plenty of time, with a flight scheduled to land a full two hours before sundown, the prospects for making Shabbat at home disappeared in that moment.
I called my spiritual adviser, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, and asked him for advice. He told me to get off the plane and go to the Cambridge Chabad. He would call ahead before I got there. My friend Jason, who lives next door to the Chabad House, called the rabbi there as well.
Even though I had no choice, this was a difficult thing to do. My wife Kami had invited 16 guests for Shabbat lunch, and my parents would be visiting. I desperately wanted to be home for Shabbat. Rabbi Shemtov told me to put that behind me: “You are either shomer Shabbos or you are not.” He was right, of course. I got off the plane and found a cab headed to Cambridge.
At Shabbat dinner, I spoke to 100 students and alumni in for Harvard Business School reunion weekend. I told them about my experiences keeping Shabbat while working as a senior White House aide, including the time five years ago when I had a similar question. During the Katrina disaster, President Bush declared to his senior staff that there would be no weekend. We would all be expected to work the entire time. As a Sabbath observer, I wondered what to do. Of course, I called Rabbi Shemtov and asked his advice. He thought about it for a few moments and then said the following: There are three reasons why you should not work on this Shabbat, despite the exigent circumstances. The first is halachic, or related to Jewish law. The principle of pikuach nefesh — the notion that saving a life would allow one to violate Shabbat – does not apply in this circumstance. Your work in the White House, important as it may be, is not physically and directly saving specific lives. You would not personally be putting the water bottles in the mouths of those in need.
Second, he said, as a prominent shomer Shabbat Jew, you are a symbol to other observant Jews in Washington. If you work on Shabbat, even in this case, their bosses might tell them that they have to work on Shabbat as well. So working on Shabbat, even in these circumstances, would put other observant Jews in a difficult position.
Third, from a personal perspective, your colleagues and bosses respect you for your observance. Indeed, a few years earlier, I went to work for the Bush campaign doing debate preparation, even though campaigning is usually a seven day a week job. I told my superior at the campaign that I was reluctant to take the job given my Sabbath observance. To his credit, he responded that he would rather have me six days a week than someone else for seven. Given the support I had received in the past, how could I now violate Shabbat, even for this very good reason? Furthermore, Rabbi Shemtov added, if I worked on Shabbat in these circumstances, colleagues might wonder what other circumstances would lead me to violate my principles. What if there were a legislative crisis or budget disaster? Would I work then? No, said Rabbi Shemtov. The thing to do is to remain true to your principles.
I listened, leaving the West Wing for Shabbat, but working the rest of the weekend. It was an important lesson then, and remains so to this day. As the Zionist thinker and writer Ahad Ha’ Am said, “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the observance of the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” It is the observance of traditions like the Sabbath that have kept the Jewish people together through thousands of years of exile.
In this graduation season, as young Jews leave school and enter the workplace for the first time, it is important for them to remember to be true to their principles; to stick up for who they are. The combination of hard work mixed with a commitment to tradition remains the best way to make one’s way in the world, especially in these uncertain economic times.