When we visited Safed, Israel, several years ago, we were attracted to some delightful small pictures of Hasidic rebbes singing and dancing through the streets of the city. They touched a chord in us, these visual depictions of the connection between joy and the spiritual life. Yitzhak Buxbaum (Jewish Spiritual Practices) explores the same link in this wonderful collection of Jewish tales of mystic joy. He notes on the opening page: "There are many Jewish tales that vividly show the joy, bliss, and ecstasy of holy people, particularly the tzaddikim, the Hasidic movement's charismatic leaders, and the Hasidim, their devoted followers. . . . The Jewish mystics say that the ultimate human aim is to attain the bliss that God intends for us. For that reason, we need to read and hear tales about mystic joy, to see the happiness that awaits us if we strive for holiness."
The author explains that for the Hasidim, joy grows naturally out of being created by God in the divine image and being given the breath of life. The Baal Shem Tov told his followers to always be on the lookout for God since the Creator is in the world. These devout Jews also revel in the bliss which comes to them while studying the Torah and by enjoying the Sabbath. Joy streams into their lives from many different experiences. It's no wonder, then, that this book contains stories of them dancing. Buxbaum even shares a prayer that salutes this action as an act of devotion:
"O compassionate Father, help me and make me worthy to be always joyful, so that I will merit to arouse myself always to great joy, especially on Sabbaths and holidays, and I will merit that my heart burn with fire and flame in holy joy, with great desire and longing and fervor for Your Name and Your service until the fervor of my heart be drawn down to my feet, so that I will merit to lift my feet with great joy and I will merit to do holy dancing in great joy."
One of our favorite stories is about a fellow who somersaults for the glory of God. Some of the early Hasidim, reports Buxbaum, did somersaults for God during worship as an expression of their ecstatic joy. It is very gratifying to see how this religious tradition puts so much emphasis upon this spiritual practice!