Dancing to Praise God

Haftorah Commentary for Sh’mini by Stan Satz

In the Torah, the most familiar example of dancing to praise God is found in Exodus Chapter 15 verse 20: Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, choreographs and orchestrates the iconic scenario in which the Israelite women commemorate in dance and song their freedom from Egyptian bondage. Dance is a motif even in the calamitous Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 31 verse 4. After the prophet so despairingly warns the sinfully ingrained Judeans about the malignant onslaught awaiting them and their consequent exile to Babylon, he foresees their eventual return to Jerusalem; and to celebrate their deliverance, they will exuberantly worship God through dance: “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.”

According to our Haftorah reading for this Shabbat, King David ecstatically dances for Adonai while he and his devout retinue accompany the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. “So David went and brought up the ark of God… to the city of David with rejoicing. And when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal. And David danced and skipped before the Lord with all his might…So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the Shofar.”

King David’s rambunctious revelry dismays his prudish wife Michal, King Saul’s daughter. She finds his antics appalling, inappropriate, unseemly, and utterly despicable. She sarcastically fumes: “Didn’t the King of Israel do himself honor today—exposing himself in the sight of the slave girls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself.” But David ignores her concerns. He is totally enraptured in the procession, continuing to dance deliriously, leaping and whirling. God approves of David’s unbridled devotion, but He finds Michal’s carping so egregious that He makes her barren. (Second Samuel, Chapter 6, excerpts from verses 12 to 23). In Psalms 30, 149, and 150, David himself proclaims how rejuvenating, how miraculous it is to dance for God. Here is verse 11 of Psalm 30: “You have turned my laments into dancing; you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy.” The initial verses of Psalm 149 proclaim: Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song in the assembly of the godly. Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; let the children of Zion exult in their King! Let them praise His name with dancing.”

And in these excerpts from Psalm 150, the last one that David composed, dancing is one of the mainstays in worshipping God: “Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in the sky, his mighty stronghold. Praise him for his mighty deeds…Praise him with blasts of the horn; praise him with lute and harp. Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe. Praise him with loud-crashing cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

For David, dancing is one of the stepping stones in experiencing God’s glory. But for most of my life, such blatant emotion was off limits. During the 1960’s, I attended Temple Israel in Brookline, Massachusetts. The renowned rabbi, Roland B. Gittlesohn, a darling of the ultra-liberal wing of the Reform Movement, conducted services with strict Germanic decorum. His forte was dry deductive reasoning; his sermons were masterpieces of formal rhetoric. Selections read from the siddur were exclusively routine, somber, sober recitations. During the musical interludes, it was unheard of for any congregant to undulate, clap, or God forbid, prance about. Any kind of spontaneity was taboo. Instead of joyful song, the professional choir robotically performed obscure, dissonant music. I often imagined that the singers, repressing their personal feelings, were robed in straitjackets, while the undemonstrative, stuffy cantor chanted bland renditions of traditional tunes. Years later, when I was a frequent lay leader at Temple B’nai Sholem, my Reform temple in New Bern, North Carolina, I tried to enliven the Shabbat service. But the congregation was not receptive to change. The only time I mixed it up was in the middle of Oseh Shalom. In between the verses that ended in Shalom, I unexpectedly shouted out Shalom! I feared that there might be an uprising because of my perceived misguided enthusiasm. Unsurprisingly, no one joined me; but at least I felt uplifted by my bit of Jewish evangelical fervor. A few years ago I joined Temple Emmanu-El. Entertained and edified by charismatic Rabbi Ken, my soul flourished. His unconventional Shabbat services, accompanied by his rollicking keyboard, were resoundingly festive, especially when they featured dance-like Klesmer variations and jazzy riffs. Rabbi Ken’s vibrant, entrancing music inspired me and so many other congregants to new heights of adoration for Adonai.

And at the end of the service, while we all sang Debbie Friedman’s rendition of Tefillat HaDerech, the Traveler’s Prayer, everyone held hands and tenderly moved side by side as one with the music.

After Rabbi Ken left Temple Emmanu-El, Shabbat services, whether on zoom or in person, were an anti-climax. The mainstream interim rabbi’s down-to earth demeanor did not enrapture me. I longed for the life-enhancing moments of transcendence that Rabbi Ken had so blessedly provided.

But I wasn’t permanently stuck in the doldrums. The new rabbi at Temple Emmanu-El, Cheri Weiss, has reinvigorated our congregation. Rabbi Ken has a worthy successor. She too revels in unorthodox playfulness. As she rhapsodically chants some of the prayers, she claps her hands and rhythmically rotates her hips. To my delight, without preamble, some worshippers have even begun dancing in the aisles. As of now, I don’t have the courage to be so uninhibited, but I may break out of my comfort zone anytime.

And what about Sof Maʻarav? Here, I have found abundant and abiding passion for prayer. Watching Sandi (with swan-like grace) unselfconsciously dance is a treat. And then there is Gregg. He outdid himself a few weeks ago. While the congregation was singing a familiar melody, he jiggled about, did his patented soft-shoe routine, and then to the delighted amazement of all of us, he boogied outside for a moment and ever so reverently glided back (almost levitating with Talmudic agility) to the bema. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gregg is a frolicking descendant of King David himself. This Hebraic cavorting, carousing, and camaraderie in the sanctuary would have been anathema at the previous mainland temples that I attended and presided over. Bring it on! Sof has been a turning point for me. I will no longer sit passively in my seat during Shabbat services. I vow at least to tap my feet to the beat of the Jewish liturgy (Don has shown me how to do so ever-so adeptly). If King David were with us today, he would eagerly participate in Sof’s free style devotion to Torah. I would like to digress a bit. My daughter has written and performed many nondenominational religious songs. One of them from her CD Out of the Dark has these poignant lyrics: “Take my hand; I’ll try to follow. You know the dance far better than me; on my own I struggle, I stumble. I lose the beat, but the rhythm of your heart is all I need. I want to dance with you oh God in perfect harmony.”

The Dance Recording

Intimately dancing with God: What a sublime vision! Miriam and David unapologetically and unequivocally praised Adonai in exalted dance. They were attuned to the vibrant rhythm of God’s love for his people Israel. That should be our goal as well. Amen.

Shabbat Times