Friday, December 13, 1996

Dancing Sheva - Leaps Of Faith; The Dance of the Rabbi (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, December 13, 1996

The prevailing myth that goes around about rabbis is that we are incredibly overworked; constantly running to hospitals, nursing homes and federation meetings, all the while composing perfect sermons and returning calls and letters. People think we're obscenely busy, and they are wrong.

It's worse.

I realized that when I looked on my dashboard the other day and dangling there - in the car that still needs its October emissions inspection, the inspection I recalled while paying October's bills sometimes in early November - was a partly-wound cassette entitled, "Time Management for Rabbis." I'd never found the time to listen to the whole thing.

Hillel said, "Don't say that when I have the time I will study Torah, for you will never have the time." Hillel was one '90s dude.Before I can even begin to dream of the "leisure" Torah study that Hillel prescribes, I've got to prepare for Shabbat and for all the classes I teach. Alongside the Torah work there is the pastoral work: visits, calls, responses to cries of pain both actual and anticipated. Im

agine a doctor who not only has to care for the patients who come to see him, but must follow up on every single patient all the time. It's not quite that extreme, but there are always more calls to make and more that I wish I could make. If I don't follow up often, I know that to a degree congregants feel that they are losing touch with much more than a mere care-giver. Like it or not, the rabbi's concern, and therefore the rabbi's time, is perceived as an indication of God's love.

And in the midst of all this there is my family, for whom prime time must be dedicated. At my eldest's brit I promised him that the family would always come first. I've kept that pledge reasonably well, though not without great anguish on everyone's part. There just isn't enough time to do all that I want to do.

Just as my world is beginning to spin out of control, I am stabilized by the realization that the spokes of my week radiate from a fixed center: Shabbat. Although Shabbat is the day when I work the hardest and am most governed by the clock (just ask the congregant who subtly taps his watch during late-running services), the day rejuvenates me by marking work's completion rather than its cessation. When the day is done and all the programming is behind me: a sumptuous meal, a great discussion, two namings, an ufruf and lots of intense community-building, I sense that all my frenetic jousting with time might actually have amounted to something.

Shabbat breaks time down into palatable parts, each week becomes a chapter with a beginning and an end. And just when I begin to feel as pressed as that retired football player who used to be seen running through airports (whatever became of him?), I find inspiration in, of all things, a sublime Hindu symbol, the Shiva Nataraja. Shiva is the King of Dance, often depicted in a state of absolute motion, with arms and legs contorted in all directions, yet with an unfathomable serenity on his face. With one leg he maintains complete balance while another flails, and his out-stretched arms appear to be lifting up the world effortlessly. Like Shabbat, he is the center of all activity, the culmination of endeavor. In the words of religion scholar R.C. Zaehner, "he dances in the sheer joy of overflowing power - he dances creation into existence."

Shiva reconciles all opposites: male and female, creation and destruction, human and divine. Dance can do that.

Early this month, a bat mitzvah student who also loves to dance decided to choreograph all the prayers of the service to the steps of modern jazz, ballet and tap. As she pranced around in my office displaying the real leaps of rapture that should accompany the "Asheri" prayer (which is all about joy), I saw a prayer that had been utterly boring to her suddenly come alive.

A few days later I brought my 3-year-old to morning minyan. Midway through the Kedusha he abruptly left our row and began running circles in the aisle, singing out letters of the alef-bet.
Embarrassed, I coaxed him back to his seat.

Later he told my wife, "Daddy didn't want me to dance at temple today."

It made me think of that bat mitzvah student and how we drain our kids of the passion, the pulp of prayer, and how only the lucky few survive to reclaim it when they are older.

It made me realize that we spend too much of our time sitting shiva and not enough dancing it.

OK, so the Dancing Shiva is a graven image. Minor technicality. Dancing wasn't patented by the Hindus; not even Zorba has a monopoly on it. We Jews, although historically long on verbosity and short on choreography, have had our great Lords of the Dance as well, including Miriam, David and a host of chasidic masters, not to mention Tevye the Dairyman's various incarnations.

A neo-chasidic revival now is cutting across denominational boundaries because the joyous dance of the Baal Shem Tov is just what our hassled masses are looking for. So what if most of us shuckle with two left feet and can't do the Macarena with abandon.

We have been wallflowers for too long. It is through such movement that we can be released from time's shackles and begin to dance our way through airport, and through life.

The Alexanderer Rebbe said, "We read in Isaiah 55:12, `For you shall go out with joy.' This means: If we are habitually joyful, we shall be released from every tribulation." So it's not the dancing that we do on the dance floor that matters. It's the dancing we do in our hearts.

I've come to understand that it is far preferable to be hyperbusy than to have nothing important to do. If we can accept that we'll always feel the crying need for more time and that death will ultimately keep us from finishing the job, we can begin to know the satisfaction of filling each instant to the brim.

I don't need to manage my time according to a pre-set plan. Every moment I am leaping along the spokes of my Shabbat-centered wheel, chaotic yet balanced, flailing yet serene. I have not one second of free time, yet I feel totally liberated. No need to pace myself, nor could I if I wanted to.

I leap from spoke to spoke, day to day. There are seven days. In Hebrew, seven is sheva. To be a Jew is to be Dancing Sheva - and to be a wallflower no more.

Wednesday, December 4, 1996

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jewish (Jewish Week)


The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jewish

by Joshua Hammerman

Have you ever stopped to think of how many useless things you've accumulated? Sukkot is a great time to reflect on this this, as we recall our ancestors' journeys through the wilderness with few posessions but enormous faith. This realization also hits me when I head to the outlet malls to buy the exact same khaki pants I purchased a few years before -- only one size larger. I buy the new pants reluctantly, but simultaneously pledge not to part with the old pair, just in case. The Messiah will undoubtedly come before I again fit into them, but I keep the older apparel nonetheless. I hate to throw things away.

It's the same with magazines. In my basement I've got decades of Newsweeks and Sports Illustrateds (worth pittance compared to all those baseball cards my mother chucked), a few ancient copies of Moment and some collector's item copies of the Jerusalem Post when it was left-wing. And then there's my fourth grade math homework, my old harmonica, some Hebrew notebooks with all the original psychedelic alef-bet doodles, and letters; loads of letters, personal, junk and life-transforming -- enough mail to fill the Smithsonian someday after I write the great American-Jewish novel, follow up with my memoirs and die.

But in the unlikely case that I don't become obscenely famous, I've got to start lightening the load.

Baggage accumulation, like the national debt, rises uncontrollably even as we seek to rein it in. Every Pesach I dutifully perform the ritual of spring cleaning, but with each seder comes another albumful of snapshots, accompanying the escalating collection of clippings for the files, books for the shelves, videos for the cabinet, CDs to replace the tapes to replace the LPs to replace the 45s to replace the 78s, to put next to the 486 to replace the 386 to replace the PC Junior to replace the slide rule. If I were to sit down and read all the books I've got lying an a neat pile on my night table, I'd never have the time to scan the millions of pages of literature I can download right now from the Net or on CD ROM. It is petrifying to note that through computer technology I now have accessible to me a Judaic library greater than the cumulative libraries of all the great and not-so-great sages of the last 2,000 years. This baggage has deep value, but one can suffocate from the sheer weight of it.

Judaism has lots of baggage too. Our core acts of religious expression have been smothered by centuries of accumulated embellishment. Though some piyyutim (religious poems) are beautiful, most come across now like the old clothes that fill my closets. Very few of them actually "fit," and by the time you get around to the best stuff, you're too tired from "trying them on" to notice.

But we keep adding layers, to the point where our tallesim are becoming as weighty as those moon suits worn by the astronauts. As I stand during the Amida, straining to lift myself to angelic heights with each utterance of the word "Kadosh," I am weighted down by so much ballast that it is virtually impossible to pray.

Maimonides wrote about 24 things that keep us from truly doing teshuvah. There are umpteen impediments keeping me from truly baring all before God each moment of each day. If the world is a very narrow bridge, as Nachman of Bratzlav suggested, then in order to cross it we've got to cut loose the loaded U-Haul that we are dragging along. The problem is that the things we jettison might prove valuable to others, including our own children. So we shouldn't obliterate everything, rather we should place the superfluous in storage -- somewhere else. Then, free at last, we can begin to negotiate that narrow bridge.

So what could we do without? What weighs me down? For one, we really don't need the New York Times. Try going without it for a week and we might discover something amazing: our own opinions. On a Jewish communal level, we've probably got a few too many organizations and far too many fund raising dinners. We really don't need two days of Yom Tov in the diaspora and we could cut down on the times we repeat the Sh'ma, Kedusha and Ashrei at services. We could do without lengthy sermons and solos too. But these aren't really what weighs us down.

Our primary burdens are self-inflicted. They include feelings of guilt and inadequacy, unresolved relationships with parents, children, spouses and lovers; and hopelessness. The burden comes not from accumulated photos and fourth grade homework, but from seeing those bygone days as our best days. Then there are the burdens of pretension, status-seeking and conformity. The obsessive fear of change is a horrible burden to bear, and the need to always be right. Hatred is equally terrible, taking so much energy to sustain.

When all these burdens are shed, the other trappings hardly matter. So what if there are two Ashreis, five black-tie dinners and a closet full of outsized pants. These are the peripherals. The junk I shlep from place to place can often spring to life with new, sudden significance, if only I could color them with hope and humility.

If only I allowed myself to shed the extraneous layers and bare my soul before God, not allowing anything to get in the way, not the page number I have to announce next, nor the name of the Kiddush sponsor. Then I would truly be God's instrument, a violin in God's hands, allowing myself to share my most beautiful music with God's world.

I am God's instrument, exposed and lithe. And all the old pictures, the extra prayers and ancient periodicals serve to moisten the strings when I myself am stored away for the night. Even my old harmonica has become a life-giving force; it is the instrument of an instrument. These things can easily accompany me across that narrow bridge, not as the ballast but as the bounce.

If only I could let the baggage go.