It's all well and good to begin your Sabbath in the Hamptons as early on Friday afternoon as possible. It's all well and good to regard Sabbath observance as the epitome of Jewish observance. But if a Jew observes the Sabbath and nobody sees the results, has the Jew observed the Sabbath?
The same question can be asked regarding the performance of any mitzvah (a commanded holy act). Our return journey to relevance begins with changing the traditional way in which we understand and think about the goals of Jewish ritual life. We must re-understand what it really means to have fulfilled a mitzvah.
The criterion for "fulfillment" that we need employ is drawn from the work of a late 13th century scholar, the anonymous author of the Sefer HaChinuch (The Book of Instruction). He wrote that the reason we perform mitzvot is that "the heart is drawn after the deeds." The performance is intended to constantly shape and reshape our entire system of personal conduct. By this measure, I would argue that a Jew has not truly observed the Sabbath unless the world sees the results on Tuesday.
How can observance of Sabbath express itself on Tuesday? Let's begin by asking a more fundamental question: What is the underlying premise of Sabbath observance? We work for six days and rest on the seventh because God worked for six days and rested on the seventh after creating the world. And what does our replication of the Divine work schedule suggest to us? It should suggest that on the six days of the week that we work, we perceive ourselves as employees in the Divine workshop who have been charged with maintaining and enhancing our heavenly employer's project.
And what is the message of refraining from writing on the Sabbath? It is to understand that when we do write--on the other six days--we do so according to God's exacting specifications. We write only the truth, and do not obfuscate. We write only well of others, giving them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Our writing needs to be free of offensive language and insensitive references. We write on God's letterhead. This is what it ultimately means to observe the Sabbath.
And what is the message of not having others do work for us on the Sabbath? It is that when we do have others working for us, we value them as God values them. Our workplaces must be suffused with respect, fairness, and honesty. This is how Sabbath observance and Sabbath observers come to matter.
Similar discussions can be had concerning refraining from commercial activity on the Sabbath, and refraining from killing even insects, or plucking leaves on the seventh day. It's really all about how we do conduct commerce, and how we do interact with God's natural environment on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.
This past year, our synagogue became the first in the country to work on a Habitat for Humanity site on a Sunday, rather than on Habitat's usual Saturday workday. Of course, this opportunity to help house those who need homes is inherently and incredibly worthwhile. But next year, I will couple our Habitat workday with a seminar on the previous Saturday, on the laws of not building on the Sabbath. The message will simply be that we observe the Sabbath fully and totally when we don't build on Saturday, and then build on Sunday.