Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, "Sing to Adonai…" (Exodus 15:20-21)
Years ago, Julius Lester, a black Jew-by-choice, was asked why more African-Americans aren't converting to Judaism. He responded that it is due to that fact that most Jews lack a sense of joy in their Judaism. Blacks know how to sing and worship with celebration, but many Jews in America do not.
After crossing the Red Sea, our Israelite ancestors had every reason to weep. We have all seen footage of more recent victims of persecution at their moment of liberation. When the Allied soldiers arrived at Auschwitz and Madjanek, no one danced and no one laughed. Had they been given timbrels, they would have stared, downtrodden and shocked.
After crossing the Red Sea from the dark narrowness of Egypt, our ancestors had every reason to weep. But instead they sang, they danced, they celebrated: Moses with song and Miriam with song and dance. So spiritually high did they ascend that God felt the need to remind them and the angels to tone it down since God had lost "children" that day, namely, the Egyptian soldiers.
Many Jews today are searching for greater meaning, relevance, and accessibility in their worship. As a result, several congregations in our Jewish community are engaged in Synagogue 2000, a strategic initiative that includes plans, systems theories, and population studies. We have rabbis blaming cantors and cantors blaming rabbis, clergy blaming lay apathy, and lay people blaming clergy dullness. But the one thing we all agree upon is that our worship lacks something.
And who is the victim? I would say that the victim is Shabbat. Poor Shabbat! She is burdened with bearing all of our community's needs. If you want to mourn, you go to Shabbat services. If you want to heal, you go to Shabbat services. If you want to shep naches, "joyful satisfaction," from your children participating at temple, you go to Shabbat services. If you want to learn, you go to hear the Shabbat sermon. And if you want to participate, you attend Shabbat services.
And so the sh'lichei tzibur, "service leaders," have to satisfy all of these competing needs. I recently received a call from an unaffiliated person who said that his loved one's yahrzeit, "anniversary of death," fell on a Tuesday this year, and he wanted to know on which Shabbat he should be mourning, the one before or the one after that Tuesday.
How could I tell him that the day of memory is that Tuesday? How could I say that showing up on the nearest Shabbat to that Tuesday is merely compensating for the fact that most of our people do not pray daily?
In the old days, healing and participation took place during the Torah service on Saturday. Today, the bar mitzvah has swallowed Shabbat. In the old days, you prayed at the shivah minyanim that took place in your home during the seven days of mourning, and you attended a daily minyan at synagogue when a loved one'syahrzeit fell, usually on a weekday. In the old days, if you wanted to learn Torah, the Friday night service was the last place you'd go: You studied Torah at other times.
Today, in most Reform synagogues, all of these needs are supposed to be met on erev Shabbat, Friday night. But with so much going on, one might be distracted rather than focused during the Shabbat worship experience. In chapter 2 of his talmudic commentary on Shabbat, Rashi states that most people in his time sat in the dark on weeknights because they could not afford wood or oil. What they were saving their pennies for was Friday night, when they put one light in each of their two rooms. What was the purpose? Was it so that they would see well enough not to bump into one another? No, it was for oneg, for "joy."
Ironically, today we usually engage in our oneg after services. We save our celebration for the room with the cookies and punch. Although we come on time to services and behave ourselves, we smile little and dance never.
In addition, while some people prefer their Shabbat services to provide an individual experience of serenity, calm, and meditation, I think the primary value that Shabbat services present is the opportunity for us to worship and celebrate together as a community. After all, Shabbat is twenty-five hours long, of which synagogue services consume only one or two hours. We have the remaining twenty-three hours to spend in private contemplation, take a walk, breathe the outside air, and rest. Serenity and meditation can be achieved in solitude. But for celebration, we need community.
My dream for our synagogues and Jewish homes is that they generate more joy and celebration. If we all go to synagogue on a Friday night prepared to celebrate and rejoice, then we may someday match our African-American cousins-in-slavery by worshiping with energy and perhaps even with ecstasy. And then maybe I'll gasp and weep in shul the way I gasp and weep when I see beautiful mountains and stunning sunsets; the way our ancestors did when Ezra the Scribe read from the Torah for the first time; the way the men sang with Moses and the women danced with Miriam.
By the Way
- In regard to the men, it states, "They believed in God and in Moses, God's servant." They believed that Moses was the only one capable of performing miracles and without him, God would not save them. That was why, when Moses went up to Sinai, they wanted an image upon which God's Divine Presence would dwell. But the women believed in Miriam, too, even though she had not performed any miracles. That is why they did not follow after the golden calf. They believed that if Moses had disappeared, there would be other prophets upon whom God's Divine Presence would rest. (Hatam Sofer in Torah Gems, volume 2, by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, pp. 115-116)
- A free bird leaps/on the back of the wind/and floats downstream/till the current ends/and dips his wing/in the orange sun rays/and dares to claim the sky./But a bird that stalks/down his narrow cage/can seldom see through/his bars of rage/his wings are clipped and his feet are tied/so he opens his throat to sing./The caged bird sings/with a fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom. (Maya Angelou, "Caged Bird," The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, New York: Random House, p. 194)
What does believing in a leader mean, and how does the relationship between a worshiper and a spiritual leader impact the prayer experience?
How would Moses' song and Miriam's song and dance have differed had the Israelites remained in Egypt? How is your ability to celebrate life limited by your own personal cages?
What is the best way to approach t'filah, "prayer," and what do you consider to be the best balance between celebration and reflection, ecstasy and meditation?
Rabbi Karen Bender serves as associate rabbi of Temple Judea, Tarzana and West Hills, CA.