Dance with Joy

Finding the hidden meaning of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah

Simchas_TorahWhat 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 orfrolicking. 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.

Read the whole article here.

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  1. #1 by Pastor Ed Leonard on October 15, 2014 - 9:21 pm

    Dear Rabbi Goldson,
    Just read your essay on “the dance” in Jewish World Review. Fabulous and thank you.

    “Where did he learn to do the “Dance of David?” was the question asked by our Israeli tour guide, Yizza Goren. It was March 16, 1973. We sat in the Egged tour bus overlooking Jericho as Yizza told us the explanation about why the walls fell down. When he finished his story, the song leader of our Charismatic Christian group began to play his guitar and sing a song and we joined in. It was a joyful, upbeat song of faith in the Word of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    As we were singing, Gordon Kess, our 70 yr old facility manager in the church stood in the aisle of the bus and began to dance, much like we do in our worship and praise services. That’s when Yizza asked his question. It was a confirmation to us that we were doing the right thing – dancing before the Almighty to show our trust and hope in is “lovingkindness which endures forever”.

    Your essay reminded us of the beauty of the gift of the dance. Thank you. May HaShem “increase you more and more, you and your children” Psalm 115

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