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Beshalach: Music Musings and Dance Moves

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Have you ever been to a Sefardi shul – or a Sefardi simcha of any kind?

There’s something special about the Sefardi personality, something which Ashkenazim don’t quite possess.

I recently spent an entire Shabbos, davening all three tefilos in a Sefardi shul. And I loved it.

What exactly was enthralling about the davening?

I sensed a real, sincere passion for Hashem and for prayer in general. When the people in shul said amen to a bracha or a kaddish, they said it with feeling and enthusiasm.

When the Torah was taken out from the Aron Kodesh, the people almost ran to greet her and to see the holy letters. Each person who was called up for an aliya seemed to recite the bracha with emotion. After the aliya, the rest of the shul almost attacked the oleh – in a good way – wishing him “yirbu yamecha – your years should be increased.”

The love for shul and tefillah was typified for me in a brief conversation I overheard between a father and son. I had just finished davening at an earlier Shacharis minyan and they were arriving for the next one. Said the child, “I went into the shul and I can’t find a seat.” The father responded, ”Baruch Hashem, there are so many people in the beit knesset today!”

Do we Ashkenazim have the same passion for shul and tefilos as our Sefardi brothers and sisters? Do I have the same deep connection to the words of davening as they do? Are our shuls as warm and welcoming; are our tefillos said with as much love – or do ours sometimes “suffer” from a bit of dryness?

What does all this have to do with the Haftorah?

Take a look at the differences between the Sefardi and Ashkenazi haftoros this week. Of course, the link from the Parsha to the Haftorah is Shiras HaYam, the Song sang after the splitting of the sea. The Sefardi haftorah begins with Shiras Devorah, (Shoftim perek 5) the song Devorah and Klal Yisrael sang after their miraculous victory over Sisera and his 900 iron chariots. Hashem caused confusion and fear to enter into the mind’s of Sisera’s army, enabling Barak to kill every last solider (5:16). Sefardim do not read the story, only the song sang after the victory.

The Ashkenazi haftorah is much longer as we read the 4th perek of Shoftim, which contains the battle and the 5th perek which is Shiras Devorah.

A Sefardi friend once explained the reason for the difference this way: “You Ashkenazim, are all dry and intellectual and not so emotional. For you to sing a song to Hashem you need to hear the entire story beforehand, otherwise you can’t sing. We Sefardim are always wanting to sing. We don’t need much to get us in the mood. We don’t need to read the story of Devorah and Barak’s victory. All we need is the basic info saying that we won and we are ready to a sing shira to Hashem!”

My friend was only half-joking. There may be a lot of truth in what he said.

The song of Devorah gives us an opportunity to discuss the role of song, music and dance in Torah thought.

Music is powerful and profoundly affects the soul. This is why a visit to the Beis HaMikdash involved much song and symphony (see Rambam in Hilchos Klei HaMikdash, 3:2-6). Music has the potential to bring one closer to Hashem.

The strength of music seems to lie in its ability to influence our emotions. At times we understand a concept intellectually, but it fails to penetrate our souls. We aren’t truly inspired to improve and grow. But then we hear the same idea illustrated in a song and we are moved to action. Our emotions are touched and we come closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

This phenomenon seems to be the meaning of a phrase in the Hoshanos prayers (page 748 in the standard Artscroll English Siddur) we say on Hoshannah Rabbah. We mention that Dovid HaMelech was “melamed Torah b’kol klei shir – taught Torah with all types of musical instruments.” How did he teach Torah with music? Do our rabbis need to sing and play the guitar in their shiurim? No, the reference here to Dovid’s musical Torah teachings was that it penetrated the soul and the emotions. His focus was not on intellectual study alone; Dovid HaMelech, at times, utilized music to touch the senses and the soul.

This helps us understand a Medrash Shocher Tov (1:2) which states that just as Moshe Rabbeinu gave us Five Books of the Torah, Dovid HaMelech gave us Five Books of Tehillim. The Medrash is not merely making a connection of “fives.” More likely, the Medrash is teaching that just as Moshe taught us the intellectual aspects of Torah, Dovid gave us the emotional growth we can experience in Torah. Dovid did this through the power of Tehillim, which was composed as music.

Music often leads to dance.

Almost everyone likes to dance. Most cultures use dancing as part of rituals to express happiness. Dancing is also something done for recreation and to bring an individual joy. Why were we created this way?

Let’s think about what dancing actually is. When we dance, we move our bodies more rapidly and quickly than normal. Dancing is essentially the same kind of activity as exercise. Scientific studies have proven that when we exercise, stress hormones are decreased and endorphins are increased. What are endorphins? They are the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals, and when they are released we experience a natural mood boost. Exercise also releases adrenaline and other natural chemicals which work together to make us feel good.

This is what dancing and exercise does. But why? Why is it that we get happier the more we move our bodies?

Movement equals life. The more you move, the more you really live.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu created us with a need to move our bodies, to exercise, to get our heart rates up, in order to maintain good health. He gave us life, but He wants us to add more life with movement.

Movement gets the blood flowing and the heart rate up. The body becomes more alive. This is why we dance we when are happy. When feeling joy, we feel the need to experience life more intensely – and so we dance. Dancing and exercise releases those endorphins because we are injecting ourselves with movement and life.

This is why dancing is called rikud, from the word meraked, to sift. When we dance we are sifting life from the world around us and injecting it into ourselves.

Shiras Devorah reminds us of the power and importance of music and dance in Jewish life.

And these are some of the happenings in this week’s haftorah.

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