There was a time, not so long ago where the thought of a Jewish Chief of Staff to the President of the United States would have been a distant pipe dream for our community, or have confronted the ‘no room at the inn’ reality of The Gentlemen’s Agreement era. But not anymore, its cool to be Jewish today (or at least cooler). As has been widely reported Jack Lew becomes the fourth MOT (Member of the Tribe) to serve in this high post. Ken Duberstein was the first MOT to serve at Chief of Staff under President Reagan. Followed by Josh Bolton under President George W. Bush and of course Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first Chief of Staff.
Much has been made about the fact that Lew is a modern orthodox observant Jew and the question has come up, how will he observe the sabbath while performing the 24/7/365 duties of Chief of Staff to the President of the United States? While the question is interesting in a Sandy Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur kinda of way, what is more telling is the bright light it shines on shabbat observance in our modern world.
The issue is not what Jack Lew will do from 18 minutes Before Sunset Friday to Three Starts in the Sky on Saturday, but what do we do during that time? Ok so maybe the Chief of Staff will have to make some accommodations, but what’s our excuse? As Judith Shulevitz’ New York Times best selling book The Sabbath World made clear last year, we need a sabbath in our modern lives perhaps now more than ever. As a progressive Jew I embrace the sanctity of shabbat, even if it does not quite fit halachic distinctions. For me shabbat is zman kodesh (sacred time) and that is defined by time that is separated and elevated from everything else I do during the rest of the week. So on shabbat I don’t do email - because I do it all week. I try to be active and outside in nature to appreciate God’s blessing of a body and natural world. I try to spend time with my family and be fully present when I do. I call my parents, and as a Jew who finds spiritual renewal and growth in prayer I go to shul.
Like Mr Lew I too sometimes work on shabbat, as a Rabbi often the spiritual needs of my community supersede my own, where I may want a shabbas nap, others have an afternoon Bar Mitzvah, or shabbat dinner is sometimes rushed as I head off to shul to lead services instead of lingering with my family (or guests). But I imagine like Mr Lew, I accept that trade off on two conditions. (1) What I am doing is important and valuable to others and would find favor in G-d’s eyes, and (2) it truly is a trade off. I am aware when my shabbas is not as I intended it and accept that as the exception not the rule. The point being that you have to have a rule, boundaries to know when you have gone beyond them. Tonight as Jack Lew celebrates Shabbat as Chief of Staff at home or in the Situation Room, my sense is that whatever he is doing will be important and valuable, worthy of G-d blessing - my suggestion is that we make sure we are always be able to say the same about our own sabbath observance.