Choreography in Holy Time

April 9, 2012Stacey Zisook Robinson, z"l

When my son was born, I cradled him against my heart, arms wrapped gently yet surely around his small and fragile body. I would stand, holding him, our breaths mingled, our hearts beating in an elegant call and response, one beat to the next, and I would sway, a slow and gentle side-to-side rock that lasted for the eternity that exists between heartbeats. I could feel his body relax into the motion, like oceans, like drifting, like peace. I loved the simplicity of that rhythm, the warmth of him, the smell of his newness and his infinite possibilities. As he drifted, as he gentled, my own body would react in kind, and I followed him.

These moments became our own Fibonacci sequence: the delicate curve of our bodies, in motion, at rest, in motion again, twined in an eternal spiral, more intimate than a lover's kiss, repeated again and again and again (world without end, Amen).

So, when I found God again...

No.  When I found the need to find a communal God...

No again. When I found the need to be part of a community in order to engage and have a conversation with God as part of that community, I began to pray more formally. I began, as it were, to daven. In earnest.

It started with Friday nights, happy, joyous celebrations that welcomed in the Sabbath Bride.  With music and prayer (and clapping, with an occasional crash of cymbal or the downbeat of a drum), we ushered in Shabbat, remembering the light of creation, the promise of wholeness and completion. I needed the community raucousness, the loud holiness of erev Shabbat to ease me into a different kind of worship.  My voice was rusty after years of disuse; there was comfort in the foot-stomping, toe-tapping, almost giddy prayer of those nights.

Saturday mornings came later for me, when I learned how to be still, when I learned that listening was as much a part of prayer as words and song.  They were all about quiet joy. Intense, but soft and gentle. If Friday nights were all a communal romp at play in the fields of the Lord, Saturday mornings (and, later, festival mornings) were a way to find individual sacredness in the midst of a holy community.

As I prayed, as I found my voice, something surfaced for me. It was so familiar, a recognition that washed over me like pools of light: warm and gentle and cleansing. As a child, I had seen my grandfather daven often enough. In shul, he and his congregation would shuckle as they bentsched, a quick, rhythmic motion back and forth, as if they were all about to walk forward but were rooted in their places. The more impassioned their prayer, the faster they moved.  Now, decades later, I found an odd connection to my grandfather: a choreography in holy time. Prayer moved me, not just emotionally, but physically as well.

There was a difference, though. Where my grandfather rocked, forward and back, so ready to be propelled outwards, or upwards, to soar wherever it was that his prayer led him, my dance was different. Mine was that gentle sway, the side-to-side rhythm I had found in my son's infancy. Unlike the shuckling of my grandfather's generation, my sway seemed to be centered, to be grounded. Don't get me wrong: one was not better than the other. Just different. I was not meant to be propelled, but to flow. Like oceans or time.  Like light.

I cannot shake the feeling that there is something holy in that movement. I can lose myself in that tidal sway, let the sacred wash over me and through me. I can believe, in those moments, that the movement itself, that easy to-and-fro, is a prayer.

In fact, I know that it is: sacred and holy and eternal. Like oceans or time. Like light.

Like love.

My son is preparing to become a bar mitzvah. To be fair, he is a bar mitzvah, having passed his thirteenth birthday just last month. But in fine American Jewish tradition, he is preparing to lead a service, chant from Torah, teach us something about what he chants. As I've tried to teach him, now, not only does the community have something to offer him, he now has something to offer the community. It's a two-way street, and he has obligations to fulfill as he steps onto the path of burgeoning adulthood.

But as he prepares, I've really tried to stay out of it. I'm his mom: I drive him to his tutor's, I remind him to practice (I remind him again to practice), I nag him a little about practicing, I'm planning the social festivities of the day itself (and thinking a lot about wardrobe.  Mine, not his.) But I am not his teacher — not for this. Let others help him prepare. I have, I hope, laid the foundation and given him guidance enough for him to follow his own path. But there is a community upon whom he can depend, who have so much to teach and share with him. Let him learn this lesson as well (I pray).

So I was surprised one day, when I reminded him, but had not reached the level of nagging at him, to practice, and he asked if I would chant with him. Would I chant with him? Would I pray with him?  Would I?

I held as still as I knew how, as if a delicate butterfly had lit upon my finger, shyly flapping its gossamer wings, so ready to take flight again. I held my breath and nodded, hoping I appeared calm and nonchalant, while inwardly doing my little happy-dance-of-joy. I did not want to frighten him away.

Would I pray with him?

And he came to me while I sat at the table, my not-so-tall boy, my almost man. He came and stood and nestled his body next to mine, so that our hearts beat in time together, a gentle call and response. And we prayed, my son and I, and we swayed, he cradled next to me, a simple back and forth, that gentle back and forth, slow and stately, a dance in holy time. Like oceans, like time. Like light.

Sacred and holy and eternal, like love. Exactly like love.

Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of  Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL.  This post originally appeared on her blog, Stumbling towards meaning:  Stacey's Blog.

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