Dancing with the Torah

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Simchat Torah: Dancing with the Torah

One major contribution Reb Zalman made to the renewal of Judaism was recasting and renewing the Sphirot of Kabbalah, and he did a lot of this thru Simchat Torah.
On that night we dance seven dances with the Torah. According to Hassidic tradition, each of these is dedicated to one of the seven lower Sphirot -- emanations of God:
Chesed, overflowing love
Gevurah, strict boundaries, strength
Tiferet/ Rachamim, focused compassion
Netzach, persistence
Hod, melodious grace
Yesod, outreaching connectivity
Malkhut, ingathering, order, majestic collectivity
(My "translations" are focused on the nature of the Sphirah, not literal translations of the Hebrew word.)
These have long been understood as aspects of God.
What Zalman did was this twirl: If we bear the Image of God (indeed these Sphirot are one way we do so), then they exist in the aspect of God-within-us, not just in some version of God beyond us.
And then the seven dances of Simchat Torah should be our expressions of the Sphirot as they manifest within us.
And therefore a Chesed dance should be different from a Gevurah or a Netzach dance -- different melody, rhythm, color, music, smell, etc.
Simchat Torah should be a time when thru celebration we do a strengthening and balancing of the Sphirot-within. WE are Torah, WE are aspects of God -- yet we actualize this truth only if we move our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls into this process. Emphasis on MOVE.
So in many Pnai Or/ Jewish renewal communities, on Simchat Torah a few people take responsibility for "composing" each of the seven hakkafot or Torah-dances, choosing music, colors for banners, etc etc . One is loose and flowing, another sharp and rhythmic, etc etc. These people then lead a larger group into that dance, and then everyone learns and joins the dance.

For no one of us is ONLY Chesed, or ONLY Hod, etc. It is thru the balance and flow of the Sphirot that we bear the Image of God. So we all need to learn and enrich each Sphirah, and to let each Sphirah teach and enrich us.
Whether or not your own community is set up for this, this year -- you can keep it in mind. You may be able to dance the seven Hakkafot in this mood even if others around you are not, and next year -- invite the community to explore this approach!!
There is also a broader aspect to this practice. Prayer may be wordless, a movement, etc -- and as we really explore the sense that all Reality happens in Four Worlds (again, Kabbalah with a twirl), then we see that not only the correct choice of words (Intellect, the World of Briyyah) but also the world of emotional relationship (Yetzirah), the world of physicality and action (Asiyah), and the world of Atzilut (Being, spirit) all need to be part of prayer.
We achieve this partly by moving in the verbal content and attitude of prayers from Asiyah (morning body-blessings) to Yetzirah (Psukei d'Zimra) to Briyyah (the belief-assertions of Sh'ma) to Atzilut (the Amidah) in the prayer services, but all that typically happens only within the world of Briyyah -- intellect and words.
It is also important to be "scoring" prayer that is dance and body gesture (Asiyah), that is dialogue between pairs and triads of people within the minyan (Yetzirah) , and that allows for stillness (Atzilut).
One enormous contribution of the Or Chadash experimental Siddur that ALEPH (Pnai Or) created in 1985 was that IN ADDITION to introducing feminine language and verbs for God in Hebrew as well as English, and IN ADDITION to using new images of God in the words, it ALSO provided guides to dance, dialogic davvening, stillness/ meditation, etc. No other Siddur has come anywhere to catching up with it in these ways.

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.

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