Friday, February 7, 1997

Dancing Sheva (Jewish Week)

 Dancing Sheva  

by Joshua Hammerman
Appeared in 
Jewish Week, 2/97

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 sometime 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. Imagine 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 bris 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 outstretched 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 "Ashrei" 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 Hasidic masters, not to mention Tevye the Dairyman's various incarnations. A neo-Hasidic 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 even 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 airports, and through life.

The Alexandrer 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 hyper-busy 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 preset 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.