Praying with our full bodies

We are a call and response people. Our call to worship, the Barchu, contains within it a formula in which we affirm each other’s intentions.

Leader: I would like to lead y’all

Congregation:  I hear you, I see you up there as our leader. Please lead us.

Leader:  I hear you, I see you congregation, thank you for allowing me to lead us in prayer. 

This formula continues with our torah and haftarah blessings, and today, in moments of our special shira torah reading. The reader pauses, acknowledging the public, hearing the public respond, and then repeats what we have said aloud. But our formula goes beyond the verbal commitment.

Let’s look into the torah portion for a moment. 

 וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ׃
Exodus 14:31
And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses.

This is our preamble to our “Az Yashir” moment. In order to sing, we need the material to write our individual songs. The Israelites must see God’s prayer in order to sing out.


אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Exodus 15:1
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said: I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea

At the conclusion of the Shira, Miriam takes center stage with her reprise of “Shiru Ladonai”. 


וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
Exodus 15:20
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.

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
Exodus 15:21
And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

And Miriam chanted. SHe answered THEM- men and women. She continues with a reprise of our opening number. (While the text cuts it short, we assume from its placement that she sings the song once again, in its entirety.) And what was the formula, the code for Miriam to begin her song?  She gathered her percussion instrument, her tof. Seeing this, the women went out and danced with their timbrels. 

From these two passages, we realize that our “call and response” formula is not just a verbal contract between individual leader and people. We use our bodies, our sightline, our dancing shoes, to confirm that we as a community are on board.

As we come upon almost a year of living with half of our faces covered, I wanted to take a moment to think about how we use our eyes, our feet, and the rest of our bodies to communicate with the world. Masking will and should continue for some time, but how we pivot with the rest of our bodies matters.

We look to our youngest for guidance. When they don’t have the words to say, they use the vocabulary of their bodies. I know that when my son rolls his arms back and forth that it means “Wheels on the Bus.” When he stomps on the ground, it means “We are the Dinosaurs” by the Laurie Berkner Band. 

Looking at photos  from this past year’s s’mahot, celebrations, we can see what happens to our eyes when we smile. We’ve learned to interpret moods based on how much squinting takes places. It reminds me of a show Leora and I loved watching- the short lived but well loved series “Lie to Me”  in which Dr. Cal Lightman teaches a course in body language and microexpressions, acting as a consultant for law enforcement on a number of cases. That’s one way of looking at body language.

How we stand in conversation gives us an idea of our own interests in what’s being talked about. We look at our feet. If our feet are pointed towards the person we are talking to, we are engaged, if they point elsewhere, probably not so much. We really do let our feet do the talking. And of course, if on a cold winter day we sit in a folding chair, ars crossed, the internet reads that s a grumpy man upset that the synagogue isn’t serving kiddush yet. We live in unnatural times. We step off the sidewalk onto the street, we take a step back rather than embrace, because we love one another. 

And we know that body language is literally that: language. 

I have to admit that I got teary eyed at the inauguration ceremony a few weeks ago. It wasn’t from any speech. It happened when Georgia fire captain Andrea Hall, paying homage to the deaf and hard of hearing community, to her late father who was also deaf, signed as she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge and its message is significant to all. Not surprisingly, news came out this week that  An American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter will attend every daily White House press briefing. The decision will make the briefings more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

When we use our bodies to speak, to move, to engage, we deepen our connection to one another. 

In Jewish tradition, there are countless ways to make our bodies communicate in a way that makes the text come alive. Our trope system itself, taamei hamikrah, began as hand motions, known as chironomy. Before there were the written “Mapach” and “Pashta”, there was the Gator chomp and the two handed jumpshot. This comes into play not only in the teaching of trope, but in the day to day reading. If a torah reader gets stuck on a word, a symbol hand gesture would remind them of the melody.  

Some of my most meaningful prayer moments from this past year involve movement of body. Those who have joined us for Friday night services may have seen a certain family member of mine join the screen for Yismichu Hashamayim, a time when everyone puts their video on so that for one word, “hashamayim” we can put our hands up in the air to show that we “do care.” Early on in the pandemic, we used to rotate with a few melodies for the Psalm, but it became apparent that this was a place where our bodies could do the praying and singing.

Last Spring, I remember each Shabbat morning on Zoom looking out to find shul regular Joe Schmuller clapping away. And when it comes to end Shabbat, you might have seen members of my family circle dancing on Facebook or Zoom. 

This is my first dvar torah of the livestream era. I have memories of 20+ years ago, taking a public speaking class at NYU. We recorded ourselves reciting speeches and watched them back as a class. What I thought had been a very expressive, was more of a tiny armed dinosaur situation. Now, I watch myself conduct a service or an event for hours every week. I listen back not only for the sound quality, but for how I moved by body. A few months ago I began standing for all of these online events because I felt more active, more present. This was one way for me to change my body language to be more engaged.

We are a call and response people. I hope that you’ll take a chance in the days ahead to think about ways in which our bodies can tell a story, especially in this new age. 

For Zoomers, it’s putting our video on, knowing that the comfort of being in our pajamas may not be as important as the comfort of knowing what we do for another by being on screen. For our texters and eye wanderers, it’s looking up and engaging in physically distant but not socially distant conversation. Choosing how we communicate, choosing THAT we communicate differently, is all that matters. It’s giving a thumbs up, a toe tap, clapping our hands, or typing a kind word on a chat.

Our smiles are often covered, our voices often muted, but the rhythms of Jewish life need the rhythms of artistic expression – song, dance, a body that moves and communicates. In this era of uncertainty and angst, when we can’t sing the way want to, congregate the way we want to, we must pivot, to the left to the left, to the right to the right. 

We must move to the beat of Miriam’s timbrel, sharing with one another, so that I see and hear you for you, you hear and see me for me. Back and forth back and forth, a beautiful song expressed through our entire being.

Posted on February 1, 2021, in Hazzan's Monday Morning Quarterback. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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