Senator Joseph Lieberman has only a year and a half remaining in his final term as Connecticut’s senior senator. He plans to retire from the Senate in January 2012. In more than 40 years of public service, he will leave many legacies for his constituents, family and friends. One of the most meaningful for him is his new book, which is about "rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath.”
This year, Lieberman co-authored "The Gift of Rest" (with writer David Klinghoffer), which is the story of the senator’s spiritual journey and a deeply personal account of his observance of the Jewish Sabbath which is observed from sundown on Friday until an hour after sundown on Saturday.
He will open this year's Jewish Book Festival in West Hartford on Tuesday, Nov. 15.
In the book, Lieberman guides the reader step-by-step through his and wife Hadassah’s weekly Sabbath, or Shabbat (in Hebrew) observances. He begins with preparations for Shabbat on Friday, continues through Friday evening services and a Friday night meal at home, Saturday morning prayers, Shabbat afternoon and concludes the Sabbath on Saturday evening. Readers will learn not only “how” but “why” as he provides explanations for the biblical laws and traditions.
With personal details such as how he brings flowers home every Friday for the Sabbath table and the discussions and singing around the table, the senator invites readers into his home, allowing us to spend Shabbat with him and his family.
During a recent telephone interview from his office on Capitol Hill, the senator said he hopes Jewish readers will come away from reading his book on a “quest of their own and decide they want to or need to put Sabbath observance into practice.”
As for members of other faiths, Lieberman reminisced about how Sunday was a “very different day” years ago. Families were expected to go to church together or “stay home for a traditional Sunday family dinner.”
“I hope [the book] will resonate with the underlying religious reason we observe the Sabbath,” said the senator. “The Sabbath is a memory of creation. We are not here by accident. I am arguing we are all so connected to electronic devices there is a danger we never stop to look back … and protect the time with those who we love most.”
As the sun sets on Friday evenings, Lieberman, 69, unplugs from his busy world. He shuts off his Blackberry and other electronic devices. He takes off his watch, because Shabbat is a day of rest and not a day to worry about being late.
He and Hadassah attend services either in Washington, D.C., or in Stamford, where they now reside. They spend the day with friends and family – relaxing, enjoying meals, engaging in meaningful discussions or biblical study, reading, and often, simply taking a nap.
Colleagues are often jealous of the sacred time Lieberman has managed to weave into his life. Former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd once joked that he was considering converting to Orthodox Judaism, but only on the weekends.
Born and raised in Stamford, Lieberman was heavily influenced by Shabbat in his beloved grandmother’s house and many warm memories of his close-knit family: Parents Henry and Marcia Lieberman and sisters Rietta and Ellen. Today, he and Hadassah replicate these memories for their four children and 11 grandchildren.
Interrupting the Sabbath
Often, the four-term Independent senator is asked, “How can you stop all your work as a senator to observe the Sabbath each week?” In the book, Lieberman writes: “How could I do all my work as a senator if I did not stop to observe the Sabbath each week?”
But he does leave his answering machine on, in case of national emergencies. Once, in 2004, he took a phone call from President Bush’s chief of staff, unsure if there was a crisis brewing. (It wasn’t an emergency; Andy Card was calling to ask him if he wanted to be nominated as Secretary for Homeland Security. Lieberman declined, electing to stay in the Senate.)
During his 22 years as a senator, Lieberman has not hesitated to stay late at the Capitol on Friday nights for a vote or important meeting. However, this meant he could not drive home, as it is not permissible to drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath. He estimates he has walked the four-and-a-half miles from the Capitol to his Georgetown home close to 40 times – in snowstorms and in downpours.
Al Gore selected Lieberman as his running mate for vice president in 2000, which made the former New Haven resident the first Jewish person in American history to run for national office on a major-party ticket. But his religious practices came under close scrutiny as many questioned his ability to fulfill his responsibilities due to his observance of the Sabbath. The same questions arose when he ran for president in 2004.
Lieberman explains in the book that Jewish law and traditions dictate that saving or preserving a life overrides other obligations. He then gives several examples of how he interrupted his observance of the Sabbath when he deemed it necessary to do so.
While "The Gift of Rest" is mostly about the “God-given day of rest,” political junkies will enjoy the anecdotes from Lieberman’s high-profile inside-the-Beltway world, including stories about observing the Sabbath with former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper at the vice president’s home; Sabbath meals in Munich with Sen. John McCain; spending Shabbat at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, with homemade challah (bread) sent by a woman from Long Island for the Jewish soldiers.
“The Sabbath is a gift from God for all people,” Lieberman writes. “In our time, I believe, it is a gift that is desperately needed.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman will open the Mandell JCC’s 2011-2012 Jewish Book Festival on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m., at the Mandell Jewish Community Center, 335 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford.
The senator will discuss and sign copies of his new book. Tickets are on sale now and are $20 per person. For more information, call the Box Office at (860) 231-6316 or visit www.mandelljcc.org.