For years I have enjoyed shopping for Shabbat at the supermarket on Thursday nights. As I browse the aisles I keep one eye on the shelves and the other on the lookout for other Jews who are out doing late night shopping like me.
For years I have enjoyed shopping for Shabbat at the supermarket on Thursday nights. As I browse the aisles I keep one eye on the shelves and the other on the lookout for other Jews who are out doing late night shopping like me. Mommies stroll by with kids in tote; husbands smile politely as they roam, somewhat lost, searching for those few forgotten ingredients; and occasionally, a triumphant five year-old, always half a foot shorter than the handle bar, proudly pushes a cart as his parent steers and tosses in food items. There is something special about seeing the community out shopping for Shabbat.
Then there is the checkout line. This is the one part of shopping that I rarely enjoy. The supermarket does good business on Thursday nights, and the length of the lines is testimony. Shopping cart after shopping cart stands waiting, a scene reminiscent of airplanes lined up on the tarmac. "We're number seven for take-off" I think to myself, as I survey the jumbo jets ahead of me in line overflowing with food items, paper towels, and cleaning products.
Truth be told, the wait is usually about four minutes long, but four minutes can seem like forever when you are standing in line in the supermarket. I assess the shopping carts in front of me. That takes about eleven seconds. The chattering of the electronic register as it prints out its receipt fills my ears while my eyes wander to the in-store bank. I scan the present interest rates: 22 seconds. I read the offers of free gifts for opening a new account: 13 seconds. Activity in the floral section catches my attention, and I follow the florist as he walks across the store with a huge bouquet: 31 seconds. The register is still chattering. I stare at my thumbs, debating whether or not to start twiddling them. The checkout line seems like an unfortunate waste of time.
When the Jewish people crossed the Jordan River and settled in Israel, one of the phenomena that they encountered was negaim, the patches of discoloration that would appear on one's house, clothes, or on one's skin. These were not your typical flaking paint, bleach stains, and rashes. At a time when we were living in the land that Hashem gave us, the land best suited to allow us to grow closer to Him, such discolorations served as warning signs that a Jew had sinned and distanced himself from Hashem.
In the desert, the laws of negaim did not apply with all of their ramifications. The negaim did not appear in full force until 14 years later after the Jewish people arrived in Israel, once the land had been fully conquered and apportioned. What took so long? The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, answers that before the land was apportioned, the Jews were largely transplants, awaiting their next move. Even after the fighting was over, people's houses and property did not necessarily belong to them quite an unsettling feeling. This lack of stability, explains the Ramban, hindered the Jewish people's ability to focus on their relationship with Hashem. The blessing of negaim, the signs that directed them back to Hashem, could not be effective until the Jews had the peace of mind to focus on Torah and mitzvot.
Since reading the words of the Ramban, I have had a change of heart about the supermarket. Now I realize that the best part of shopping is the four-minute wait in line. When else in my busy day do I set aside time to focus on my relationship with my Creator? The end of my shopping spree provides me with 240 seconds of calm to reflect on how I can improve my mitzvot observance; whether I am properly utilizing my opportunities to study Torah; and, in general, where my life is headed. These four minutes could prove to be the most enjoyable and beneficial moments in my day. We all have pauses when we are stuck with nothing to do. With a little thought, they can become the most productive moments of our entire day and maybe our entire life.
Yosef Rodbell, a native Atlantan, is a member of the Kollel at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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