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Shall We Dance?

Rambam (Maimonides) mentions a fascinating mitzvah at the end of the Laws of Lulav. Even though on every Yom Tov there is an obligation to be happy and rejoice, ושמחת בחגך, on Sukkot there is an additional Torah obligation of שמחה יתירה “you shall rejoice in front of Hashem seven days.” “In front of Hashem” is the Torah’s reference to the Holy Temple. This special celebration took place each night of חול המעד סוכות, the intermediate days of Sukkot, immediately upon the conclusion of the daily afternoon sacrifice and continued all through the night. This celebration was known as the שמחת בית השואבה “Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing.”

Talmud Sukkah 51a states “Someone who never saw the celebration of the Water Drawing at the Temple has never seen rejoicing in his life.” On page 53a the Talmud describes some of the rejoicings during this celebration: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would juggle 8 lit torches; they did not touch one another; he would place his two thumbs on the ground and in a handstand lower himself so his face would kiss the floor. Then he would raise himself up, a feat no other man could do (The Talmud states another great rabbi went lame trying to do it). Levi would juggle 8 sharp knives at a time; Samuel would juggle 8 glasses of wine, Abaye with 8 raw eggs. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania said, “When we rejoiced at the Water Drawing celebration our eyes saw no sleep.”

Based upon the description of this special celebration in the Talmud, the Rambam writes, “Not anyone could come and do whatever he wanted. But the great Torah scholars, the heads of the academies, judges, pious men, elders, and men of good actions could come and dance, sing and rejoice on the floor of the Holy Temple. The rest of the nation, men and women would come to watch and listen.”

Apparently then, not every Tom, Dick and Harry, Moshe, Chaim, or Dovid could enter the dance floor. Rather, they had to attend the festivities but only to observe. Why could they only watch? More directly, what was the permit that allowed someone to enter the dance floor and participate? Apparently, it was not a free for all. What prevented the best break-dancers or limbo contortionists (my bar mitzvah party in the early 60s) from going out there and doing their thing on the dance floor? What was your ticket in?

The answer lies in recognizing the source for these celebratory expressions. They are rooted in the joy and happiness that comes to a person when he or she experiences the life of Torah. Such people are grateful to God. He has given people a system that, if studied and followed, reveals deep insights into the path of human perfection and how that state of being leads to a relationship with God. The people who are permitted on the dance floor share a common feature. All of them have a real appreciation for God and His wisdom. They know He is the source not only of the legal/philosophic system of Torah but the source behind all knowledge of the universe. He is the reality of all realities. In addition, they recognize the benefits (physical, emotional/psychological, and intellectual) the Torah system affords them in their daily life. Naturally, these people express their joy through their dance and merriment much as people do at a family simcha or when their favorite team wins a championship (the Eagles winning the Super Bowl last February!)

During the prayers on Sukkot, we insert the phrase זמן שמחתנו, “the time of our rejoicing.” This joy stems from security in our knowledge of God’s eternal watchfulness, protection, and love for the Jewish people. These celebrants are expressing their firsthand experience of internalizing the Torah’s lifestyle as it says in Proverbs 3:17-18, “It is a tree of life to those who take hold of it… All its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” These people are properly suited to enter the dance floor. Their dancing reflects the joy that naturally flows from living a Torah way of life. These feelings and expressions of gratitude are given proper outlet in no less a place than our Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the holiday of Sukkot.

May we all merit not only to see but to participate in the Sukkot celebration of the Third Temple, may it be rebuilt soon in our days.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan