There is dancing, and there is dancing.
Everyone dances at weddings, especially at religious weddings. And everyone dances in a different way. Youngsters go full throttle and spirit, older folks move at a slower pace and try to stay out of the way, and children form their own little circle dances. There are as many varieties of dance as there are varieties of guests. All strive to fulfill the religious duty to be mesamei’ach chassan v’kallah — to enhance the joy of the bridegroom and his bride.
A wedding simchah is a two-way street: the joy of the couple inspires the guests, and the joy of the guests uplifts the couple — often literally. As they begin the long and sometimes arduous journey that is marriage and confront the challenge of building a bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael, the rousing send-off of the music, the dancing ,the singing, the laughter — and the presence of family and friends — provide sustenance and strength to the couple as they set out on their adventure.
Dance is the body’s wordless expression of inner feelings. It can project melancholy, exaltation, and even religious emotion: the leaping, hopping, and springing — the feet leaving the ground — express the profound aspiration to rise above physicality and to reach heavenward (which is also why we spring upward like the angels when reciting kadosh kadosh kadosh).
Occasionally one encounters a dancer at a wedding who is on an entirely different level from everyone else. I encountered one such man recently.
He is a world-famous talmid chacham and posek who had dropped in to wish mazel tov to the families. Although he moved in rhythm with the music and was part of the large circle, he did not simply blend in with the other dancers. He moved together with everyone else, but his dancing was different. In a circle of some 30 men, he was alone. His eyes were closed, and though he was holding the hands of his partners and moved gracefully with the beat of the music, he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. He was clearly concentrating on the words of the song: “Vetaher libeinu — Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.” He seemed to be engaged not in a dance, but in a prayer — as if, before entering the circle, he had recited the traditional pre-mitzvah kavanah-inducing phrase: l’sheim yichud — “at the behest of the Almighty I am fulfilling the mitzvah of enhancing the joy of the bride and groom.”
He was consciously and with intent performing the mitzvah — as if he were donning tefillin, as if he were reciting the Shema. In the midst of dozens of singing men in a whirling circle, dancing to the blare of near-raucous music, he was engaged in a singular, private act of avodas Hashem.
Of course, Orthodox weddings are occasionally redolent of a religious carnival. Beyond the inevitable carrying of the groom on the shoulders of his friends, and the bride elevated high on her chair, there are badchanim, costumes, fire-eating performers, clowns, laugh-inducing tricks — all inventive ways of adding joy to one of the great moments in life.
But the dance I was watching was of an entirely different order. He would not go home and tell his family that the smorg was great, the food fabulous, and that he had a great time at the wedding. He was not having a great time per se; he was engaged in creating a great time for the couple.
Suddenly I understood the meaning of that mysterious verse in Tehillim 2:11: “… v’gilu bir’adah — rejoice in awesome trembling.” I had never comprehended that verse. Can one tremble while being joyous? Can there be a connection between joy and awe? But here the contradictions melted away. To perform any Divine commandment — especially an act of kindness — with full concentration is to be filled with awe and simultaneously to transmit profound joy.
Without intending to, this great talmid chacham had taught an important lesson: Avodas Hashem is not limited to prayer or to learning Torah. Any action can be done for the sake of Heaven: eating, playing, doing business. And full kavanah need not be limited to awesome moments like U’Nesaneh Tokef’s “who will live and who will die” on Yom Kippur. It can be realized at less obvious moments: in the grocery, on the highway, in the classroom, in the kitchen.
This posek’s dance was joyous yet solemn, happy yet trembling with awe. Observing him, I realized that there is dancing, and there is dancing.