The Wedding Mitzvah Dance

    April Passover 2005 Edition            
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Not Like Any Other Dance

By Varda Branfman

All night we have been dancing with the bride and groom, and now we sit with our drinks and pieces of cake. We are too tired to talk the talk we spoke to one another over the table at the wedding feast. But the hours of dancing have raised us beyond our normal sleepiness, and we are ready to appreciate the dance that is called in Yiddish "mitzvah tantz."

I remember it from my own wedding. The Rebbe didn't stop to explain what was happening when he handed me one end of the gartel, and there was no time to ask him. Just dance with my brother holding the other end of the gartel, then the brother-in-law, then the Rebbe, and then my husband. In front of everyone? Something seemed amiss? Why all of a sudden was I allowed to dance in front of the men? What kind of mitzvah could I get at the expense of doing something that is usually forbidden? I didn't understand, but I trusted the Rebbe.

The reason is that it is not a dance like any other dance. For one thing, the bride hardly moves. She just holds the gartel while the other end of the gartel is held by the one designated to dance with her. Her face is usually veiled. She stands in her veil and wedding gown like a luminous white vision. She knows that this is a good time for prayer like the time of Neilah on Yom Kippur, and her lips move behind the veil as she asks for a happy marriage, for children, a good life, and all the deepest prayers that are hidden in her heart.

The order of the dancers is significant: the uncles and brothers, the father-in-law, the father, and then last of all, the groom. A pathway to her new life is carefully laid as she dances with her father-in-law which gives way to the dance with the father who gives ultimate precedence to the groom who is the other half of her soul.

Here is the father taking his daughters' hands in his own and dancing with her, without the gartel in between them. They are allowed. This is after all his daughter. This is after all her father. The other dancers were close relations, but her father is much more. One's own child, one's own daughter. How to express the love they feel for each other now at the time when the nature of love becomes revealed?

Do it in a dance where the dance is a gentle swaying of hands in hands and the tapping of feet is a modest expression of something so tremendous. A complete understatement. She has grown up and is leaving her father's house to make her own home. Her father is saying goodbye to his child. He already beholds before him a young woman and a wife.

The father's love is expressed in this intense, hardly moving dance of one soul whispering to another. If he is the good father that he is, he knows that now he must give over his sweetest, most lovely daughter, he must give her to her soulmate. And so the hands release her hands, and the next dance begins, the dance above even the dance of the bride with her father. Now begins the ultimate dance of one soul retrieving itself from the exile of having wandered without its whole being and now made whole.

We are allowed to witness this dance because our own souls have experienced a longing for the other half and the wonder of the other half found. It now comes clear. This is the dance of the Shechinah and the Jewish People. We are found. We can watch this dance because it is our own souls dancing. All of us together as one, feeling the dreat deep thankfulness of coming home.

Out in the middle of America, in Denver, Colorado where the men wear cowboy hats in shul, there was our Chassidishe Rebbe, a grandson of the Bobover Rebbe, Reb Ben Zion, and a ninth generation grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, there was Rabbi Shloimie Twerski handing me the end of his gartel and gently explaining that the mitzvah tantz is a special Chassidishe custom. Most of the wedding guests had never held a mitzvah dance at their own simchas, but some of them had seen the mitzvah dance at the weddings of the Rebbe's children.

My own relatives had certainly never seen or even heard of a mitzvah dance. But the whole wedding had been one surprise after the other, and they had taken each thing in stride. My brother had been swept up by the dancing and had clearly enjoyed the experience. His tie was loose, and he looked happy and relaxed. My brother stood in the middle of the circle that had been cleared for us, and he gingerly took hold of his end of the gartel.

At first, our Rebbe stood smiling by the sidelines. More than anyone, he was appreciating the anomaly of the scene and the primary players. It was a great cosmic joke putting a mitzvah tantz in the middle of Denver, Colorado. But then the Rebbe's face turned serious as he watched my brother glide from side to side. The Rebbe closed his eyes the way he had had closed them during his long, beautiful solo dances earlier during the wedding feast when everyone had stood watching him. He might have been praying for my brother The Lawyer and for all the neshamot still trapped in the galut of New Jersey and Boston, San Diego, and Great Neck.

It didn't matter if the mitzvah dance was taking place in Denver in the last quarter of the twentieth century or between two grandchildren of Rebbes in the teeming chassidishe centers of Bobov, Ger or Belz in Poland before the Second World War. Our Rebbe saw the opportunity and the opening. He was calling on the power of the mitzvah dance to transform and heal, to return our hearts to Our Maker. The Mitzvah Dance as a dance above all dances could break through the borders between cultures, countries and centuries.

When the Rebbe took the gartel to dance with me, I couldn't raise my eyes. I felt the strength of his prayer like a strong gentle wave washing over me. He had blessed me like a father before the chuppah, and now he was blessing me again. The Rebbe had only known me for one month, but I felt his love for me, and the love he had for my husband who had virtually lived in his house and was like a son to him. My father who was already in the Next World would not take his turn in the mitzvah dance, but the Rebbe was ready to stand in for my father as he danced with one end of the gartel before handing it over to my husband.

What were we doing in that dance, surrounding ourselves in love. What is love? What is connection? What is dance? What is prayer? The mitzvah tantz was an answer that spoke without words. It moved without hardly moving. It soared with the gentle tapping of our feet. It spoke of the flight of souls, the bird soaring and then flying low, the earth and the Heavens. It was a dance of one, and not of two. It was a dance of One.


from the April Passover 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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