Dance with Body and Soul
On the fateful day of the 17th of Tammuz, in the year of the redemption from Egypt, as Moshe Rabbeinu stood on Har Sinai, Yehoshua stood at the foot of the mountain and thought he heard the sounds of war in the camp (Shemot 32:17). However, Moshe insightfully responds “It is not the sound of the armies raising their voices in triumph nor is it the sound of crying and screaming when becoming weaker in battle, rather it is the sound of singing I hear” – קוֹל עַנּוֹת אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ. As Moshe continues to approach the camp, he observes the golden calf and the dancing – וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת (Shemot 32:19) and subsequently he breaks the luchot, the tablets given to him by Hashem on Har Sinai (based on midrash Lekach Tov on Shemot 32:18).
This scene can be sharply contrasted with one that occured only a few months prior, after Kriyat Yam Suf. After experiencing Divine revelation and miraculous intervention in the face of the Egyptians at the splitting of the sea, the prophetess Miriam went out with her tambourine with the other women and their instruments — וּבִמְחֹלֹת, and with dancing — and Miriam sang for them in responsive song, וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם, to praise Hashem (Shemot 15:20-21).
While the making of the golden calf in itself was certainly problematic and much has been written on the intentions, sin, and punishment of Aharon HaKohen and the nation, in some ways perhaps the most jarring aspect of the incident is the song and dance that accompanied the false worship. It is one thing to do an act halfheartedly, mechanically, going through rote movements. It is quite another to move with bouncy steps and rhythm, full of heart and enthusiasm. We learn from these two starkly contrasted stories how powerful and significant song and dance really are to Hashem and how, when properly embedded into our worship, they can be powerful vehicles to connect to ourselves and to the Almighty.
Tehillim (100:2, 84:3) teaches us עִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ בְּשִׂמְחָה בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו בִּרְנָנָה, serve Hashem with gladness, come before Him with joyous song and in yearning for closeness to Hashem, my heart, body and soul shout for joy to the Living God – לִבִּי וּבְשָׂרִי יְרַנְּנוּ אֶל אֵל־חָי. Likewise, halakha guides us (Mishna Berurah, Orach Chaim 95:3) that one is meant to move during prayer based on part of a verse (Tehillim 35:10) כׇּל־עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה ה’ מִי כָמוֹךָ – All of my bones shall say “Hashem who is like you?!”
When one is deeply moved to connect to the Almighty, one often spontaneously moves his or her body as well. Rav Kook (אברהם יצחק הכהן קוק, אורות התחיה, אורות, פרק לג) reminds us that we cannot be solely focused on our inner lives and he urges us to be conscious of our physical health and of the significant effect that our bodies can have on our spiritual well being. David HaMelech embodies this when he danced without hesitation, uninhibited, celebrating the return of the Holy Ark to Jerusalem with a full heart and a spring in his step, and danced with all his strength before Hashem (Shmuel II, 6:14).
As we enter the period of sadness and mourning starting on the 17th of Tammuz and continuing through the 9th of Av, we minimize our music, our celebrations and our dancing. Just as the restricted period of distance between a husband a wife with various “harchakot” (separations or acts to create distance) are meant to ultimately remind us of the great potency in such behaviors (such as passing items or sharing food from the same plate) so too perhaps in this time we are entering harchakot from uplifting music, song and dance as a reminder of the powerful influence that these elements possess. This period of the three weeks is not meant merely as a reminder of where we went wrong, but also as a guidepost of how we can do right. The art (omanut – אומנות) of music and dance is directly connected to the word emunah, (אמונה) faith; both stem from a deep force of spirituality and connection, and are expressions of something that defies logic and rhetoric. B’ezrat Hashem we can utilize the upcoming weeks to connect to our deeper selves and lay the foundation for a more holistic experience of spontaneous prayer, serving Hashem with all of our bodies with untethered joy, unrestricted movement and unselfconscious song while we prepare for the soul – dance that is yet to come (see Taanit 31a).
Shai Agnon wrote –
כי ירים איש את רגליו ויצא במחול, כי אז נפשו מתרוממת, גם נשמתו תגביה עוף, עד כי אמור נאמר כי כל איבריו, כל גופו הם בבחינת נשמה, כי בזאת התעלה הגוף, כי היה היה לנשמה
When a person raises their legs and expands in dance – this is when their spirit is uplifted, and their soul soars until their entire body becomes an expression of their soul; for thus is the body uplifted, transforming into the soul.
I couldn’t agree more.