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The Dancing Jew

by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

The Hora
I’m not much of a dancer. I don’t like dancing and I’m not much good at it. So I often find myself on the side of the dance floor watching rather than joining. The dance pace at a Chassidic wedding is intense but the selection is pretty much standard—the hora, the hora and yet another version of the hora.

Actually, when you think of it, the hora fits the marital theme. Dancers stand in close proximity, hold hands, and dance in a tightly knit circle. Can you ask for a better wedding metaphor? The newlyweds also hope to live at close quarters, hold hands, and maintain an egalitarian relationship.1

An Inspired Dance
The hora is indeed a beautiful dance but I was once at a wedding where a much more inspired dance was performed. The dance floor was circling with various styles of the hora when two young Chassidim squared off before the groom and began an intricate yet soulful dance. I don’t know the name of this wonderful dance but for the purposes of this essay I have named it “The Inspired Dance.”

Loving unity between spouses is not constant, is never steady. It is a dynamic energy that thrives on being in a constant state of flux. It grows and fades and then grows back again even stronger than before
The dance floor emptied as everyone paused to enjoy the spectacle. The dancers faced each other at a distance but acknowledged each other with a bow. The dance began as they slowly circled each other, alternately facing towards and away from each other. Animatedly angling back and forth, they alternated between drawing closer and pulling away.

To me, the choreographed steps told an exquisite tale of two people who yearned for each other but were not yet ready to reach out. The dancers hesitantly surrendered to their yearning but then quickly pulled back. They drew closer again only to pull back once more. They weren’t ready yet, there was still so much to explore about each other and about themselves. Reluctantly, they pulled away and gazed from a distance.

As the dance progressed so did the pace, and the dancers wound their way across the floor. They advanced and fell back, drawing each time progressively closer. They twisted and turned, barely avoiding, nearly colliding in their quest for mutual closeness. The dance wound to an end and the dancers reached their peak. They finally approached each other and engaged in a hesitant but warm embrace. The dancers exulted and the spectators applauded celebrating the triumph of happiness.

Siblings and Spouses
The drama that played itself out on the floor told a story that echoes across the journey of married life. Marriage requires enthusiasm, commitment and, above all, continuous labor. It is a never-ending process of drawing together but a never-ending challenge of overcoming obstacles. After all, marriage brings together a man and a woman, each with natures and characters from the opposite stream of life.

Loving unity between spouses is not constant, is never steady. It is a dynamic energy that thrives on being in a constant state of flux. It grows and fades and then grows back again even stronger than before. Like the inspired dance, it rises and falls, peaks and dips, advances and retreats. The hora, on the other hand, maintains a steady pace of close contact with very little drama. There is no fanfare and no triumph, just a steady pace symbolic more of the relationship between siblings than that of husband and wife.

Siblings play out their own little dance. It is not passionate and bold but natural and easy. What’s more, it lasts forever. A married couple must work hard to achieve their loving bond but once achieved, there is no guarantee of permanence; it might erupt in explosive passion or fade away on the dying embers of divorce.

The inspired dance is artistic and dramatic; the hora is natural and predictable. The question we must ask ourselves is, with whom shall we dance the hora and with whom the inspired dance? This is also the question we must ask ourselves as Jews. Which of these two, do we dance with G-d?

The Jew and G-d
The proper answer is, both. G-d and people are as distant as the finite is from infinity. He is the creator and we are the merely created. In this sense our dance is the inspired dance; we reach across this gulf and struggle to achieve and then maintain a connection. Yet at the same time, G-d’s bond with us pierces the core of our essence. Even the assimilated Jew, even the apostate, cannot cease being a Jew. On the deepest level, we are claimed by G-d. Like a sibling who cannot sue for divorce, our dance is the hora, forever together, in an eternal circle that grips us in tight embrace.

Siblings play out their own little dance. It is not passionate and bold but natural and easy. What’s more, it lasts forever
Indeed, the Jewish people are metaphorically referred to in the Torah as G-d’s bride. Endearing as this term is, it doesn’t promise an eternal connection. Brides are passionate and loving. But even marriage doesn’t promise eternal devotion, as may be seen when couples sue for divorce. Torah grants the Jew another title. In addition to G-d’s bride we are also G-d’s sister. The sibling relationship that we share with G-d ensures an immutable lasting connection that can never be severed.2

Every Jew is a sister and a bride. We, the accomplished dancers, are proficient in the intricate steps of both dances—the hora and the inspired.3

Two Souls
This Bride/Sister duality, the dual dance we play out with G-d, is the role of every Jew. G-d granted the Jew a G-dly soul and an animal soul. The G-dly soul is a veritable part of G-d himself clothed in the garment of the human body. As we walk, think and talk, we carry a fragment of our creator on our person. It comprises the essence of who we are, and we cannot surrender it or divorce it.

The animal soul is the conventional soul of man, which exists to a lesser degree in all living organisms. The animal soul feels no natural kinship with its creator. It is not inherently holy. On the contrary its initial attraction is to the worldly. This animal soul must be slowly nurtured with loving care if it is ever to develop a relationship with G-d.

Given the correct dynamics, our animal soul can learn to connect with G-d but its connection cannot be spontaneous or permanent. While connected, it will be fiercely drawn to G-dliness. It will covet all things holy and enjoy a spectacularly rousing love, but this connection is by no means assured. It can fade as quickly as it rises. It requires constant tending.

Our animal soul is (or has the potential to be) G-d’s bride. The bride prefers the inspired dance where a powerful connection is possible but requires constant effort and emotional investment. Our G-dly soul is G-d’s metaphoric sister, the sister prefers the hora, always connected and always dependable.

Some Jews are more devout than others and some are more impassioned than others but no Jew is more connected to G-d than another. The G-dly soul of even the most assimilated Jew remains eternally linked with G-d. Even after long periods of separation G-d connects with His sister with familiarity and ease.

Anything for My Sister
The Torah teaches that a priest may not intentionally become impure by attending funerals (thus coming in contact with the dead and contracting their state of impurity). The Torah does, however, offer special dispensation for immediate relatives. A number of relatives are included in this dispensation but the Torah pays the most attention to the priest’s unmarried sister: “And to his virgin sister who is close to him, who has been wed to no man, to her shall he contaminate himself.”4

The Jew is G-d’s sister. Even with faded passion, we are still on the dance floor and that speaks volumes of our intrinsic connection
Metaphorically speaking, this verse may also refer to the relationship between G-d and us.5 As we have established, the Jewish people are not only the divine bride but also sister. We, the sister, are close to G-d and we have given ourselves to no other man.6

The priest may contaminate himself for his sister. G-d, the greatest priest of all,7 may and does enter the life of each Jew – the righteous and the not so righteous, those who dance passionately with G-d and those who have allowed their passion to fade – even though this entry brings G-d into the center of our spiritually contaminated lives.

Why does G-d enter the contaminated center of our lives? Because the Jew is G-d’s sister. Even with faded passion, we are still on the dance floor and that speaks volumes of our intrinsic connection. We may be saturated with impure thoughts and unholy behaviors but deep within our intimate core, we dance an unending hora with G-d.

G-d enters the spiritual mess we have made of our lives because we are inherently related to G-d.8 Our house may be in shambles, our rooms a mess, but G-d feels at home with us. After all, we’re family.9

Footnotes

  • 1. The circle represents perfect equality as it has no beginning or end, no head or tail, no top or bottom.
  • 2. “I have come to my garden my sister the bride” – Song of Songs 5:1.
  • 3. The cosmos play out the same dance but they play it across the broader horizon of the sky. The sun rises every morning and sets every night offering bright rays of light and an enveloping blanket of warmth. It is dependable and permanent. It dances a daily hora around the universe. The moon acts differently. It too winds its way across the global dance floor but it appears dynamic rather than static. It prefers the inspired dance rather than the hora. It waxes and wanes, continuously adjusting its apparent posture. Its appearance is not today what it was yesterday and will not be tomorrow what it is today. It can be depended upon to do only one thing, to make its appearance—grow or shrink.
  • 4. Leviticus 21:3.
  • 5. The words “close to him” refer to the Jewish people. Note Deuteronomy 4:7: “For who is a great nation that has a G-d that is close to it.” Note also Psalms 148:14: “The children of Israel, the nation close to Him.” It is also interesting to note the verse (Jeremiah 31:12). “Then the virgin shall rejoice with a “machol”. “Machol” can be translated as a close-knit dance similar to that of the hora. Indeed the sister is described in Leviticus as a virgin, and the virgin dances a hora. Contrast also the “machol” dance that the virgin Israel will dance with the “rikud” dance of the moon, which is danced from a distance—“I dance opposite you but cannot reach you” (from the prayer for sanctification of the moon, adapted from Mesechet Sofrim ch. 20).
  • 6. The Zohar teaches that the words no other man refer to the spirit of Esau who is the “a trapper, man of the fields” (Genesis 25:27).
  • 7. Talmud Sanhedrin 39a.
  • 8. Indeed, G-d is prepared to enter the Diaspora, the center of ritual impurity, to redeem us, His spiritually suffering sibling. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in His apparel, traveling in the greatness of His strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1). Edom and Bozrah are allusions to Rome and Babylon, the respective destroyers of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem.
  • 9. This essay is based on Zohar section three p. 89a and on Ohr Hatorah Leviticus vol. 1 p. 578.


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