One of the biggest challenges I have as a teacher and parent is motivating young people to sing and dance as they rejoice on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays. One might think that it would be a greater challenge to make Talmud study relevant and to inspire today’s students to delve into the analysis of the intricacies of halacha. Zemirot would seem to be more engaging than the study of the responsibilities of the ox-owner for damages. Similarly, one would expect it to be a greater challenge to explain to students why one should believe in a theology that is not accepted by the vast majority in the world and that presents many moral, theological and personal challenges. Nevertheless, I have found that motivating young people to sing and dance to their religion has been most challenging.
Upon reflection, the explanation seems clear. Theoretical intellectual exploration is appealing to our youth (and adults). It is difficult to deny the legitimacy of learning and of knowledge. Though some do not find the study interesting, many students do. Very significantly, the more theoretical the study is, the less demanding it is on our personal lives. Song and dance, on the other hand, demand a personal connection and engagement unlike any form of intellectual study.
Similarly, we find it easier to connect with sadness and with suffering than with happiness; we connect to the solemnity of Yom Kippur more than with the unbridled joy of Purim. Prayer resonates in our hearts during trying times, and it is profoundly difficult to find meaning and focus on thankfulness in tefillah during “regular” times.
The Midrash (Shmot Raba 23) criticizes Adam, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov for failing to sing songs of praise when they experienced some of the extraordinary events of their lives. It was not until the Jewish People crossed the Sea that the song of Hallel was first introduced through the Az Yashir.
The Prophet (2 Shmuel 6) recounts how King David, the author of the psalms of Hallel, lost himself in exuberant dance as the Aron was returned from the Plishtim. While his wife, Michal, criticized him for this unbecoming and degrading behavior for a king, David, the quintessential composer of song, insisted that dancing is the only way to properly experience the meaning of that moment.
Among many things, Pesach is a time of song. We sing the Hallel more times on the first days of Pesach than on any day of the year. And the Hallel was not intended to be mumbled or studied but sung and experienced. It is known that we are called on the night of the Seder to not only remember the exodus, but to re-experience it. It is noteworthy that we are supposed to feel as though “we ourselves left Egypt,” though we are never told to feel like slaves. This reflects the fact that the challenge of this night is to identify not only with the suffering, but in the happiness and celebration.
This may truly be the biggest challenge in Jewish education today, but it is certainly worth our while, as we remember our past and look forward to celebrating this redemption and our future redemption.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the Rabbi of Cong. Shaare Tefillah in Teaneck and Rosh Beit Midrash at the Ramaz School in Manhattan
By Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz