If you want to know how long Mira Bergen has been keeping Shabbat, just ask to see her marble collection.
On New Year’s Eve in 1999 Mira was at a crossroads. She had been coming to the local Orthodox community for Shabbat on and off for over 10 years and loved it. She especially cherished the warmth of the Shabbat table and seeing families spending quality time together. But as much as she loved the lifestyle, she had been unable to commit to keeping Shabbat.
However in 1999 as everyone was talking about the New Millennium and Y2K, Mira saw something else. She had always been interested in New Age ideas and pop spirituality. When New Year’s Eve fell on a Friday night, Mira saw the intersection of Shabbat and the new millennium as a sign from G-d that it was time to observe the Sabbath and become Shomer Shabbat. But it was intimidating to give herself that title, so she decided to celebrate just one Shabbat at a time. She resolved to make December 31st her first one.
“I saw the new millennium and said OK, time to start being Sabbath observant. But I can’t be Shomer Shabbat. I can’t use that label,” Mira said. So she decided to keep just that one Shabbat. “I’m making a commitment one Shabbat at a time.”
Mira learned the lesson from her mother, who taught her that if you’re trying to cut a roll of salami it can be overwhelming to do it all at once. But if you slice it one bit at a time, it’s much easier to do it.
“Many people think that observing Judaism is an all or nothing action, that you must take on all the obligations at once. But growth in Judaism is really about constant baby steps, about taking on small commitments,” Mira said. “G-d appreciates anything we do to get closer.”
For Mira this meant making one commitment at a time. In every area of her Jewish growth she heeded her mother’s advice and cut off only a small bit at a time.
“If someone is not ready to keep Shabbat each week, why not try to keep it only for an hour? If someone is not ready to keep kosher full time, then try to give up only one particular food,” Mira said. “People think they have to do everything at once. They don’t know that G-d looks highly at everything we do. You’re making a distinction, you’re trying to have a relationship with Hashem.”
So on Friday night, December 31, she was sitting with a local family watching the clock as it struck midnight. It was the first time she had ever spent New Year’s Eve not watching the ball drop in New York on television. But instead of lamenting that she was missing the televised celebrations, Mira felt wonderful as she reflected on the start of the new millennium quietly and in G-d’s way. The frenzied revelry of the secular New Year had been replaced by the spiritual bliss of Shabbat.
That one Shabbat turned into two and within a short time she had kept Shabbat for a month. She kept track of each Shabbat by placing a marble into a wine decanter. By now she has over 430 marbles.
With each marble she added, the number of that Shabbat also took on a deeper meaning. Each Shabbat she looked for a connection between the week’s number and an idea in the Torah portion of the week or other current event. Every number is significant in Judaism and has a particular meaning, and members of the community began pointing out some of the deeper connections of the number of her marbles.
On Shabbat number 13, her Rabbi taught her about the 13 Attributes of Hashem. Mira’s 40 Shabbat was Rosh Hashanah. The number 40 is deeply related to birth and new beginnings, so it was a perfect timing.
On Mira’s 50th Shabbat the family she was staying with baked a special challah in the shape of the Hebrew letter Nun, which has the numerical value 50. When she traveled to Israel and spent three Shabbats there, she added three unique items to her collection: a small blue chamsah “hand,” a blue glass circle and a blue fish. For her 100th Shabbat she put a battery into the jar because “Shabbat keeps me going!” People in the community have bought other special marbles for various Shabbats, such as the handmade marbles a friend recently brought her from China.
Mira originally collected marbles as a way to make herself accountable and maintain her Shabbat observance, but soon she began looking forward to each Shabbat and especially to putting another marble into the decanter. With each new marble, Mira gained a deeper level of appreciation for Shabbat.
“A lot of people don’t understand. They think that I live the most rigid life, full of shoulds and have tos, that I have to do this and this. However my life is filled with such pleasure and joy and laughter,” Mira said. “G-d loves me so much because He gave me Shabbat.”
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com
(published in The Jewish Press April 2007)