Earth Etude for Elul 11 – The Freedom of Dance; the Prayer of Protest
by Maggid David Arfa
Shalom Shachna, the son of Holy Angel, the grandson of the Maggid of Mezeritch, learned to dance from the Shpoler Zeide. For the rest of his life he would share with all who would listen how the Shpoler Zeide was a master of dance and able to achieve Holy Unifications with each step of his foot. Adapted from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber.
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer….Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sometimes, when I can no longer stand my careless abuse of the Earth, I know I have to take a stand- In the streets with my neighbors. Teshuvah as protest. The power is in the action. My legs hold real power to help me remember what’s most important and start fresh.
Amazingly, it used to be common knowledge that the power contained in our legs affects the cosmos. An ancient midrash says every commandment has a corresponding place in our body and day of the year. We are not only saying ‘As above, so below’, but also ‘As below, so above’ This teaching was carried forward into Medieval Kabbalah providing a unique form of empowerment. The Kabbalists actually taught that the cosmos needed our prayers and our actions for its own healing.
The Hasidic creativity of the pre-modern world transformed this teaching applying it specifically to everyday dance ( song and story too!). Did you know the Shpoler Zeide continued to dance with the lightness of youth well into his old age? Once, a Jewish life was in danger. A giant cossack soldier was cruelly treating him like a cat treats a mouse. The giant declared that if anyone could out-dance him, then he would spare the life of this simple Jew. However, if not, than both dancer and hostage would die! Everyone was so scared. It was the Grandfatherly Shpoler Zeide who stepped forward. He danced the Bear-Dance with such focused power and vigor that the cossack was unable to keep up. He fell down laughing saying, ‘You win old man, you win’. For the Shpoler Zeide, dance was a superpower! Able to affect Teshuvah with a single bound.
Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, actually prescribed dance as a remedy for the hopeless despair that prevents joy. He knew, the act of dance was enough to raise joy high in the saddest of souls. Dance as medicine. How’s that for creative health care!
Now we come to Rabbi Heschel and his creativity. He’s not just protesting, he’s praying with his legs! This power still reaches us, like light from a distant star. It is testimony to Rabbi Heschel’s strong cosmic powers.
How many of us are inspired to do more because of Rabbi Heschel? The power of praying legs in protest.
This Elul, let’s bring all of the enchantment we can muster to our Teshuvah. Let’s add our modern awareness for the evolutionary miracles that allow legs to stand, ankles to rotate, and 26 humble bones in the foot that allow us to stand steady even on uneven ground. The spontaneous freedom of dance, the improvisational prayer of protest reminds us that we can choose a new path. We can alter the shape of tomorrow. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!” Rally Ho!
For additional background on the powers of dance see, “The Mystery of Dance According to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav” in The Exegetical Imagination by Michael Fishbane.
Maggid David Arfa (Mah-geed; Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom. He has produced two CD’s, “The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe”, and a light-hearted collection, “The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Ever To Live”. His full-length performance, “The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto” won the Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award for artistic excellence, depth of vision and technical mastery. David’s workshop ‘Try Stories for a Change’ trains organizations to build volunteers and raise funds through authentic storytelling and listening circles. Other workshops explore the relationships between wonder, grief, hope and activism. David earned his MS in Environmental Education and degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Environmental Policy. He is now studying Clinical Pastoral Education and is the Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. David lives in Shelburne Falls, MA. For more information see www.maggiddavid.net