Dancing with the Devil to Dance with Hashem

Describing the time in the future when Mashiach will reign, David ha-Melech expressed a beautiful thought simply and eloquently (Tehillim 149:3): יְהַלְלוּ שְׁמוֹ בְמָחוֹל בְּתֹף וְכִנּוֹר יְזַמְּרוּ־לוֹ (Let them praise His name with a circle-dance; with tambourine and with lyre let them make music to Him). Let us understand why dancing is the primary expression of praise mentioned by David ha-Melech, ahead of singing or playing music (or even prayer, which he didn’t mention here at all).

Preparing for his encounter with Esav, Yaakov sent his family and his possession across the Yabbok River (Bereshit 32:23-24). Setting the stage for what became one of the most important events in human history, Yaakov went back across the river to pick up some small jars (Chullin 91a). The Torah says (32:25): וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר׃ (And he was left alone and a man kicked up dust with him until alot hashachar [just as light from the sun begins to glow in the eastern sky]). The word vayei’avek is typically translated ‘wrestled’, but its primary meaning is ‘to get dusty or dirty’ as Rashi notes: וַיִּתְעַפֵּר אִישׁ לְשׁוֹן אָבָק שֶׁהָיוּ מַעֲלִים עָפָר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶם עַ”י נִעְנוּעָם (‘And a man got dirty, from the word ‘dust’, i.e. that they were raising dirt with their feet through their movements). Rashi also says that the word means being joined as when two people are making efforts to throw each other down. And according to our Sages, the ‘man’ was no ordinary man; rather, he was the Ministering Angel of Esav, i.e. the Evil Inclination itself (Bereshit Rabbah 77:3). So what was really going on? The Satan was trying to wrestle with Yaakov to defeat him by throwing him to the ground, but Yaakov knew that the only way to defeat the Evil Inclination wasn’t with force but rather with dance. And this is why the Torah uses the unusual word vayei’avek that means ‘and he kicked up dust’ because there are two primary ways for people to kick up dust together, one by wrestling and the other by dancing.

But what does this really mean? The next verse reveals more of the secret (32:26): וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף־יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ (And he realized that he couldn’t overcome him, and he touched his thigh at the socket, and Yaakov’s hip became dislocated as he ‘dusted’ with him). When the Angel saw that he wasn’t able to stop Yaakov from dancing, he pulled a ‘dirty’ trick by dislocating his thigh, thus ‘forcing’ him to stop dancing. Why was this so important and what is its deeper meaning?

The ‘thigh’ hints to Yaakov’s descendants, as it is written (Shemot 1:5): וַיְהִי כׇּל־נֶפֶשׁ יֹצְאֵי יֶרֶךְ־יַעֲקֹב שִׁבְעִים נָפֶשׁ (And the number of people that came out from the thigh of Yaakov was seventy souls). By striking him at his thigh, the Angel told Yaakov that he was going to work throughout history to prevent his descendants from singing and dancing. How? By sending them into depression and sadness. And why did he use this specific tactic? Because it is written (Yeshayah 55:12): כִּי־בְשִׂמְחָה תֵצֵאוּ וּבְשָׁלוֹם תּוּבָלוּן (For you will come out [of exile] in joy [simchah], and in shalom you will arrive). The Satan knew that if he could keep the Jewish People in a perpetual state of depression and despair, he would be able to delay the redemption indefinitely, and by doing that he would be able to continue his own existence and influence indefinitely (רַחֲמָנָא לִצְלַן)!

And much to our chagrin, his tactic has worked fairly well. How do we know? The Torah reveals the main reason for all of the curses that would come upon the Jewish People throughout history, and it isn’t that we aren’t ‘religious’ enough, but rather that which Moshe Rabbeinu stated explicitly (Devarim 28:47): תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָבַדְתָּ אֶת־יְיָ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל (Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy [simchah] and with a goodness of heart from an abundance of everything). Read that verse as many times as you need so that it will permanently enter your consciousness. All the decrees against the Jewish People come about due to a lack of joy in serving Hashem. This is the reason for our lengthy exile, and nothing will bring on the redemption no matter what we do if we don’t change the way we serve Hashem. And this is connected to what Rebbe Nachman taught in Likutei Moharan 10:1: כְּשֶׁיֵּשׁ חַס וְשָׁלוֹם דִּינִים עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל־יְדֵי רִקּוּדִים וְהַמְחָאַת כַּף אֶל כַּף נַעֲשֶׂה הַמְתָּקַת הַדִּינִין (Where there are, G-d forbid, decrees against Israel, by dancing and clapping hands the decrees are sweetened). This is the only solution—the only antidote—the only way out of the endless cycle of negativity, suffering, sadness and depression.

This was the awesome secret known to Yaakov, the Tzaddik of that generation; and this explains why he danced with the devil all night long, i.e. throughout the night of exile. The Angel wanted to wrestle with Yaakov (for that is the way of Esav as inspired by his Ministering Angel, to wage battles with the sword), but Yaakov didn’t want to wrestle. He wanted to dance, to keep on dancing and never stop dancing because he knew that only through simchah would the final redemption unfold.

Now comes a great irony in the story (32:27): וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר (And he said, ‘Send me away because dawn has come). What did the arrival of dawn have to do with anything? The Gemara explains the Satan’s concern (Chullin 92b): מלאך אני ומיום שנבראתי לא הגיע זמני לומר שירה עד עכשיו (I am an Angel, and from the day that I was created, my turn to recite song hasn’t arrived until now). He wanted Yaakov to release him so that he could return to Heaven and sing before his Creator, but under no circumstances did he want Yaakov’s descendants to sing and dance before their Creator! He knows the truth that the only way to serve Hashem is with joyful song! And that’s why he wants to prevent us from achieving this type of service. But Yaakov refused to let him go, essentially saying to him, “Why should I let you go and sing with simchah while you will constantly infect my descendants with sadness and despair preventing them from singing and dancing at all, let alone with simchah!” Yaakov then says to him (32:27): לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּנִי (I will not send you away unless you bless me). In other words, “You must admit to me that it was Hashem’s will that I was the chosen one to have received the blessings from my father Yitzchak, that they were received in righteousness and truth, and that they were never stolen from Esav.” The Angel acknowledged this vital truth and said to Yaakov (32:29): לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹקִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל (You will no longer be called ‘Yaakov’ but rather ‘Yisrael’, because you strove against an angelic being [Angel of Esav] and men [Esav and Lavan] and prevailed).

This should have been our greatest source of encouragement throughout the centuries but the lengthy period of exile has clouded our minds. We have no reason to be discouraged or sad about anything! We are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, the spiritual giants upon whom the world has been established. We have been given the Holy Torah from Heaven. We are a nation of kings, prophets and kohanim. Logically, there should never have been any room for depression or sadness if the Evil Inclination had not touched Yaakov’s thigh hinting that he was going to fill his descendants with an endless supply of worries, doubts and fears—all enemies of emunah that destroy simchah. And this is why Rebbe Nachman emphasized over and over again throughout his lifetime (Likutei Moharan II:78:7): כִּי אֵין שׁוּם יֵאוּשׁ בָּעוֹלָם כְּלָל (For there is no despair in the world at all!).

We can bring the story back to our verse in Tehillim 149:3. The Torah says (Bereshit 32:32): וַיִּזְרַח־לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ (And the sun shined for him). Rashi explains: ויזרח לו לְצָרְכּוֹ לְרַפְּאוֹת אֶת צָלַעְתּוֹ כְּמָה דְּתֵימָא שֶׁמֶשׁ צְדָקָה וּמַרְפֵּא בִּכְנָפֶיהָ (‘And it shined for him’ means ‘for his needs’, to heal his limp, as you say, ‘a sun of charity with healing in its wings’ [Malachi 3:20]). This means that when the sun rises in the morning, i.e. when the time of the final redemption arrives, the descendants of Yaakov will no longer have any impediment in their minds and souls in serving Hashem. We will have our sadness and depression healed and we will break out in song and dance not only at the beginning of the redemption but throughout all eternity, as it is taught (Taanit 31a): עָתִיד הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לַעֲשׂוֹת מָחוֹל לְצַדִּיקִים וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב בֵּינֵיהֶם בְּגַן עֵדֶן וְכׇל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מַרְאֶה בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וָאֹמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵינוּ זֶה קִוִּינוּ לוֹ וְיוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ זֶה ה׳ קִוִּינוּ לוֹ נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בִּישׁוּעָתוֹ (In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make a circle-dance for the tzaddikim, and He will sit among them in Gan Eden, and each one will point with his finger, as it says [Yeshayah 25:9], ‘And it will be said on that day, Behold! This is our G-d; we hoped in Him and He saved us. This is Hashem; we hoped in Him. Let us exalt and be happy in His salvation’). But beyond that, Hashem will actually lead the dance (Likutei Moharan II:24): וְלֶעָתִיד עַל־יְדֵי הַשִּׂמְחָה יִתְתַּקֵּן כָּל הַחוֹלַאַת כַּנַּ”ל וְאָז יִהְיֶה הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ רֹאשׁ חוּלֶה דְּהַיְנוּ רֹאשׁ הַמָּחוֹל כַּנַּ”ל כִּי הַשִּׂמְחָה הִיא בְּחִינַת תִּקּוּן הַחוֹלֶה כַּנַּ”ל. וּבִשְׁבִיל זֶה נִקְרָאִין הַשִּׂמְחָה וְהָרִקּוּדִין חוּלֶה כַּנַּ”ל כִּי הֵם תִּקּוּן הַחוֹלַאַת כַּנַּ”ל (And in the future, simchah will be the remedy for all sickness, and then Hashem, may He be blessed, will be the leader of the celebration [chuleh], i.e. Head of the Circle-Dance (machol) because simchah is an aspect of the remedy for a sick person [choleh]. And for this reason simchah and dancing are called celebration [chuleh] because they are the remedy for sickness).

So why wait for the redemption? We can choose right now to be in the aspect of dancing Yaakov or in the aspect of limping Yaakov after his thigh was dislocated by the Evil Inclination. It’s up to us.

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