Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat - Shemini 5764

Playing Before Gd

I thought I would take a break this year from, yep, you guessed it, my two favorite crispy critters-Nadav and Avihu. Time, I thought, to turn to the Haftarah for II Samuel.

Aha, you're thinking. Instead of Nadav and Avihu, this year it will be Uzzah. Another unfortunate struck down by Gd. Indeed, there's plenty of fodder here to play with. (There's a little scholarly joke buried in there. Gunther Plaut, in his Haftarah commentary, refers to an interpretation by the Christian Bible Scholar, George Bradford Caird, who is probably best known for his commentary on the New Testament's Book of Revelation, that Uzzah's death occurred when he stumbled in some ox droppings.)

However, it's not Uzzah's death (which provides the linkage between parashat Shemini and the Haftarah from II Samuel) upon which I wish to focus my thoughts today. Nor upon Nadav and Avihu. Although there is some slight linkage in the category of "appropriate behavior and action in relationship to Gd."

II Samuel chapter 6 begins with the story of David having the holy Ark of the Covenant, now recaptured from the Philistines, being transported back to Jerusalem. They loaded the ark on a plain cart and headed back to Jerusalem in triumph and in a celebratory mood. The text describes David and the people dancing before the Lrd accompanied by all kinds of music. At one point, unlucky Uzzah reaches out and touches the Ark to steady it, as the oxen had stumbled. (It's the translation of the Hebrew word here translated as stumbles that is in question, and upon which Caird bases his rather different interpretation.) Gd is angry with Uzzah and strikes him down on the spot. David was distressed and also saw it as a bad omen, so he halted his march back to Jerusalem until he was sure Gd's wrath had subsided. Once so convinced, he proceeded on to Jerusalem. There, while entering the city, Michal, daughter of King Saul, and David's first wife, spied him dancing and acting playfully, in a roguish manner. She confronts him later and chastises him for his undignified behavior. The Hebrew is subject to some interpretation--but the basic gist is that she accuses him of exposing himself to a bunch of slave girls like some commoner.

David answers her haughtily-first reminding her that he was chosen by Gd over her father Saul to be the new King of Israel. And then he says: V'Sikhakhti lifnei Adnai.

I will dance before Gd. And I will dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own self-esteem,; but these slave girls of which you speak, among them I will be honored. (II Samuel 6:22-23)

Michal is punished for her insolence (we assume by Gd) by never bearing any children. It's not entirely clear whether her reproach of David is considered appropriate or not. One can infer, since she was punished by being made barren, that it was inappropriate. Why is a question I leave to another time, though feel free to ponder your own answers. Ponder, even, why her reproach may have been appropriate (after all, it is included in the ext) yet she was still punished.

It is a hard question, is it not. This one of appropriateness before Gd. Raises all kinds of issues. Synagogue service decorum and attire. Behavior in religious school and Jewish camp settings. Debates between appropriate styles of music for worship.

I think the lesson to be drawn from the text is that we must be cautious in determining for others what is and is not appropriate. There are times and places for honoring and thanking Gd in different ways--solemnly; joyfully; even playfully.

The Hebrew verb root Sin, Khet, Qof can mean laugh, or play (as in games, or musical instruments,) dance, make sport, and even mockery. And therein lies the problem. One persons play can be another person's mockery. That's clearly the difference between how David and Michal saw David's actions.

Returning the Ark to Jerusalem and to possession of the Jewish people is surely worthy of great celebration. Were I among David's procession, I've little doubt I might have been dancing, singing (well, in my case, more likely playing an instrument) and generally acting joyful and playful. Would Michal have viewed my actions as dishonorable?

This debate has been around in Judaism for a long time. The Hassidic masters and the Mitnagdim argued over appropriate worship style. The Hassids practiced fervent, even ecstatic worship. "Gd desires the heart" the Baal Shem Tov was fond of quoting from the Talmud. The mitnagdim considered the practices of the Hassids as undignified and inappropriate.

In our own times, the debate surfaces in issues like synagogue dress, and synagogue music. There are those who favor dressier clothes. Others dress casually. Those who favor music derived from a more classical style. Others find the more contemporary folk and rock style music more accessible. In some congregations, everyone sits prim and proper, reading responsively in unison. In other synagogues there is a more free style of worship, and children roam freely around the sanctuary. Which is more appropriate?

As in most things, I always believe in balance. When we take "sin khet qof" from playful to mocking, we have perhaps crossed a line. Yet it is hard to know what is in another's heart. Is the person at services in the torn blue jeans mocking Gd? Is the young lady in the short skirt and revealing top mocking Gd? Are those who are standing up, dancing and singing at services as if they were in a Holy Roller church mocking Gd? I don't know about you, but I sometimes find myself getting pretty ecstatic when praying.

I'm for giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I'm also for respecting others. I think the "yekkes" among us need to "chill out" a bit and just be glad people are coming to services. On the other hand, I think each of us needs to be thoughtful about what we wear to services, and how we act.

Michal did not respect David's ecstatic worship. Perhaps she misunderstood it. She saw him as parading around half naked in front of a bunch of slave girls. To David, it may simply have been ecstatic enthusiasm in offering thanks to Gd for the return of the Holy Ark of the Covenant. David, however, appeared to not have understood Michal's point of view. Perhaps she saw his behavior as undignified in the presence of Gd and Gd's Holy Ark, and not just as undignified for royalty.

There's room for both views. What's required is for each party to try and understand the other. To try and be accepting of the other. To show respect for each other. To allow each person to "dance before Gd" in their own way.

The haftarah ends with David desiring to build a permanent house for the Ark. Gd says "have I ever asked for such a thing?" Oh my goodness, we're back to that Nadav and Avihu thing, aren't we......

This Shabbat, play, dance, sing, shout before Gd in your own way. And don't let the Michals of the world stop you, and don't let the Davids of the world get out of hand. Sakhakhu lifnei Adnai!

Shabbat shalom,

©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some previous musings on this parasha

Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters

Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out

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