UPDATED: October 2, 2015, at 12:13 p.m.
My mother calls me every Saturday morning. She asks me how my classes are going, if I’m eating well, if I’m taking my vitamins. Right before we hang up, she often asks me if I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life. She reminds me it’s important to have a plan, and to “be on track.” I understand where she’s coming from, but I also wonder why she never asks me about getting off track. I wonder why she never asks me if I know how to rest.
I think about this as I sit at a beautifully set table: A crisp white tablecloth drapes over the round table, ruby red carnations stand tall in a gold vase, and a full plate of food invites me to stare. I’m currently at Shabbat 1000, the largest Shabbat dinner that Harvard has ever hosted, according to its organizers. There are over 70 round tables, seating a total of over 800 students, arranged within the Science Center Plaza Tent. Most of the tables are packed with people—students, children, and adults alike, in garb ranging from fresh-pressed suits to plain white t-shirts.
“We, in our own lives, often confuse movement with meaning,” says Hirschy Zarchi, the rabbi at Harvard Chabad. He stands at the podium in the middle of the tent. With the daily routine of life, Zarchi explains that we often forget to think about where we’re going and why. We forget to rest; we forget to reflect. And this is what Shabbat is about.
Following a series of short speeches by organizers of the event and representatives of Harvard’s HilleL, we begin with Shalom Aleichem, a liturgical poem that is sung every Friday night to signal the arrival of Sabbath. Every guest is provided with the words of the song—in Hebrew, in Hebrew with English romanization, and in English translation. There is even an explanation for why these songs are important to Judaism. Many sing loudly, others stumble over the words, and I try to hum along.
There is then the recitation of Kiddush, after which everyone is invited to drink the purple liquid in the small plastic cups (they’re vaguely reminiscent of medicine cups). A few eager freshmen bear disappointed faces when they realize the liquid is just grape juice.
Following the recitation, we’re all invited to the tables lined with large silver bowls. For the first time in my life, I am excited to be washing my hands. I pour a cup of water over my hands in a silver bowl, and I find that this small gesture livens the mundane act of eating. I pull apart the cute knot of challah bread and eat it with hummus, and then eagerly dig into the plate of food in front of me. There’s chicken breast coated in pesto sauce, green and white string beans, sweet quinoa with raisins, mixed-green salad, and a soy-sauce based noodle dish. The food, though understandably a little cold, is delicious.
I usually reserve dinners in the dining hall to playing the misery game with my friends—we talk about all the work we have to do and how we don’t want to do it—but this meal is remarkably different. For the first time in a long time, I feel relieved to simply enjoy the company around me, and appreciate this present moment in time.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: October 2, 2015
An earlier version of this article misattributed a quotation from Hirschy Zarchi, the rabbi at Harvard Chabad.