Moshe was 11 years old in July 1941, when the Nazis marched into Lvov and tore him from his home and the Chassidic court of the Grand Rabbi of Bobov. The warm comfort of Torah study and Sabbath melodies vanished amidst the cold misery of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
But Moshe never lost hope. Whenever he felt ready to crumple under the bitter anguish of hunger and disease, his favorite tune from his rabbi’s Sabbath table would echo in his memory, giving him the strength to go on.
One frigid afternoon in December 1944 the inmates were herded into the showers for “delousing,” then chased back into the camp square for a headcount, dripping and naked in the subzero weather. Claiming a discrepancy in the prisoner count, the Kapos left the Jews to stand shivering on the frozen ground.
An hour ticked by, minute by painful minute. The water on their skin turned to frost. Then, one by one, bodies began to fall.
14-year-old Moshe felt himself freezing to death, and the snow beneath his feet seemed to offer welcome relief from his torment. But in the next moment he heard the Bobover Rebbe’s voice in his ears: “Don’t fall, my young friend. You must survive! A chassid sings; a chassid dances. It is the secret of our survival!”
Moshe began humming his favorite tune. Slowly, his frozen limbs began to move and he began to dance, leaving bloody footprints in the snow, until the Bobover melody warmed his heart and revived his spirit.
THE MUSIC OF EMPTY SPACES
What is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?
According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.
“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”
In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.
This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping or frolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.
Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.
THE CIRCLE OF THE RIGHTEOUS
A famous Talmudic passage seems to bear this out. Ulla, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, foretells that with the arrival of the messianic era, the righteous will dance together in a circle and, while the Almighty sits at the center in the Garden of Eden, each will point and proclaim, “Behold, this is our G-d.”
According to Chassidic teachings, every tzaddik — every truly righteous person — fears that his own service of G-d is imperfect or incomplete; nevertheless, he finds solace in the certainty that others more righteous than he have perfected their own service in absolute fulfillment of the Divine will. But at the end of days, teaches Ulla, G-d will show every tzaddik that his divine service was accepted and acceptable; each tzaddik will see that, irrespective of his trepidations, his own personal path was proper and correct.
Ironically, it is the very self-doubt of these tzaddikim that pushes them to new levels of spiritual refinement and self-knowledge. It is the conflict and the tension between the perceived and the hidden that drives them on in pursuit of ultimate truth and self-perfection. They know that they will never reach absolute enlightenment — the “center of the circle” — but they never stop trying to bring illumination to the dark and empty places of this world.
The Festival of Sukkos culminates in the holiday of Shemini Atzeres, when synagogues transform from houses of quiet reverence to halls of joyous song and dance. The Chassidic tradition explains further why we celebrate this on this day by dancing in circles: this is our celebration of the “marriage” of the Jewish people and the Torah and, as we join together circling a common point of focus, we experience for a brief moment the light of absolute unity and absolute truth.
Rabbi Zev Leff expands on this idea, observing that as the righteous change positions and look toward the center, they “see” G-d from the perspective of those around them.
Simultaneously, they will be able to appreciate that the different styles and approaches of others were not only correct but filled the gaps in their own service. As we dance, we look forward with joy the End of Days when the Divine will is completely revealed and every man, woman, and child witnesses the fulfillment of the prophecy, “They will no longer have to teach — each man his fellow, each man his brother… for all of them will know Me” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
THE MELODY OF CREATION
But those words of Jeremiah are for days yet to come, and attaining that future depends upon navigating an ever-shifting course between the familiar and the unknown, the expected and the mysterious. The rhythm of our lives can lull us into a sense of complacency and false comfort if its beats are too regular, or can confound us into paralysis if its cadence defies logic and predictability.
As a template for the challenge that defines our existence, G-d created three types of creatures: malachim, animals, and human beings.
A malach is a being of pure spirituality (translated imprecisely as angel), residing in such proximity to the unfiltered divine radiance of the Almighty that there is no room for individual ego or individual desire.
The spiritual “music” that a malach hears is so structured, so complete, so insistently harmonious that a malach has no free will; it can do nothing other than conform to the will of its Creator.
On the other extreme are animals, which are so distant from G-d that they can do nothing other than follow the physical urgings of instinct and nature. The “music” they hear is completely unstructured, rendering them effectively deaf to any higher calling.
In the middle there is Man, a creature uniquely suspended between the heavens and the earth, possessing a spiritual soul encased in a physical body, pulled heavenward by the promptings of his divine nature and weighed down by the animalistic impulses of his material environment, locked in an eternal struggle wherein each of his inclinations vies for supremacy over the other.
We perceive just enough to know the truth, and just enough is hidden from us so that we can deny the truth. The music we hear has an inescapable rhythm, but with gaps and spaces that require our participation if we want to fully appreciate its harmonies.
If we disengage, our animal nature takes over, shutting us off from the Divine. If we rise to the occasion, we reach a level higher than any malach, for we have reached it on our own through the self-determination of free will.
As the Jewish people were bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for the first time, King David danced with such abandon that his wife Michal chastised him for an unseemly display of joy. But David was not rebuffed.
After a lifetime checkered by dark episodes and painful uncertainty, David was on the threshold of fulfilling his purpose as King of Israel. His whole life had been a “dance” in response to trials and tribulations. After all those challenges had led him to this consummation, what else could he do but dance for joy?
King David’s message should guide us through the Festival season and onward with each and every day. In moments of cacophony and seeming chaos, listen for the rhythm of Creation, hold fast onto the order that defines a life of Torah study and observance, and take joy in the opportunity to rise above the noise and confusion using the unique talents and opportunities that the Creator has given you.
Dance with joy, and joy will make you dance.