Becoming a grateful receiver
An introduction to Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman's Dvar Torah

In a media-saturated culture that promotes working and shopping till you drop, Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman isn't buying.

Success isn't found by striving and being superhuman, he says, but instead by being open to all our humanness, our weaknesses as well as our strengths. When we find our "inner-nobility" - a spiritual connection to the ultimate reality- we'll measure our worth less by the external accumulation of stuff. In short, he was holding out hope for getting off the treadmill, but how?

Rabbi Hoffman was making his point about Shabbat as a model for keeping one's balance in the world by teaching a whirling Sufi dancing step. That this bearded, bespectacled Hassidic Rebbe would teach by drawing from the mystical tradition of Islam is not surprising. He often says that mystical Judaism, correctly understood, is in some ways closer to Buddhism and the traditions of the East than to Christianity. But there is also a crucial difference with those traditions says Rabbi Hoffman. Judaism stresses embracing life rather than a "solitary mystic" approach to spirituality. Mystical experience through meditation is not seen as an end in itself, but rather as part of an ongoing dance between the ultimate reality of oneness and Le Chaim - the life of creation, our physical life, which is marked by differentiation. Hashem (literally "the Name") is used by orthodox Jews instead of G-d to denote this ultimate reality because it is believed that no single word can possibly convey its meaning.

Spin Faster

"Plant your right foot on the floor," said Rabbi Hoffman. "Hold your hand in front of your eyes. Push yourself in a circle with your left foot. Spin faster as you are comfortable. You must focus entirely on the palm of your hand or you will get dizzy. Don't lose focus."

He began to whirl at a high rate of speed. I joined him, cautiously at first, eventually circling faster, losing myself until becoming self conscious and then dizzy.

"What's Shabbat and what's the week?" Rabbi Hoffman asked as I held myself up against the wall.

"Shabbat is the focus on my hand," I answered. "The week is .. .." I circled my head with my hand to indicate the dizziness. He nodded, adding,"When we are going through the motion of the week we have to keep our focus on the ultimate reality."

Rabbi Hoffman believes that the essence of Judaism is found in this dance between the physical and the non-physical. "If you just look at the parts," he said, "the parts can be found other placed. But Judaism brings them together in a very unique way."

The ancient and the modern

Rabbi Hoffman mixes the ancient and modern, rabbinic teaching stories and questions and the insights of modern psychology. That he would teach by using a circular dance is very appropriate, as his sessions are circular, non-linear journeys in which teachings emerge slowly rather than quickly. He often compares the art of Torah interpretation to the art of interpreting a dream.

The principal circles in Rabbi Hoffman's teachings are:

In his teaching sessions, Rabbi Hoffman begins with seemingly unrelated elements, ultimately weaving together parts of each of these circles like an improvisational jazz musician in order to teach a life lesson.

This particular circle covered the "crazy dancing" of King David, the connection of Shabbat with Malkut, a sphere on the mystical tree of life of the Kabbalah, and the connections between the three major pilgrimage holidays in Judaism - Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot.

We can perhaps best enter this particular teaching circle by considering a rabbinic story and a rabbinic question that won't be fully answered until we reach the end the journey.

"None of you laugh"

Rabbi Hoffman told a story of the Ari Zal (Issac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist and mystic) and his disciples. This highly regarded mystic was leading a group in an effort to bring the Messiah. They succeeded in first bringing in the "7 Shepherds," mystical visions of Biblical figures each representing the qualities of some of the 10 sefirot, the energies of creation and the soul. "Whatever happens, none of you laugh," warned the Ari Zal. The group first saw visions of Aaron, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph and all went well. "Then," said Rabbi Hoffman, "David entered, dancing like crazy."

David represents the sefirot of malkhut, which translates to good governance. The contrast of such a dignified soul energy theme with David's "crazy dancing" was too much for the Ari's disciples. They all disapproved and one disciple laughed.

"The disciple who laughed died shortly thereafter," said Rabbi Hoffman. "Now for the PhD questions. "What's kingly about dancing like crazy? And why were the consequences of laughing so high?"

Reenacting biblical stories

Rabbi Hoffman explores biblical meaning by combining teaching stories, mystical texts and psychodrama, a form of therapy that allows people to improvise and act out stories and feelings from their lives. In Torah psychodrama, participants reenact biblical stories improvising between the lines, sometimes incorporating elements from their own lives that fit with the characters. Following our psychodrama of events from the life of King David, several themes emerged.

David cared very deeply about Saul, Israel's first king. Saul, while initially intelligent and caring gave into the pressures of his office. "Saul began to see the world in Darwinian terms," said Rabbi Hoffman. "David admired Saul greatly, but Saul saw him as a potential threat to the throne and wanted him killed. David left a knife on Saul's pillow to show that he could have killed him if he wanted, but that he did not want to kill him. Saul wouldn't be persuaded of David's admiration."

Saul's lack of trust led him into deep despair. "Ironically, the only thing that would soothe his depression was David playing beautiful music with his harp," said Rabbi Hoffman. "Saul was the first king so he had no role model. You can feel compassion for him because he was working without a net."

Spiritual bond

Saul also resented the close spiritual bond between his son Jonathan and David. Saul wanted Jonathan to succeed him as king. David and Jonathan's friendship was all the more remarkable because they were potential rivals. Saul's depression eventually became so great that he committed suicide by throwing himself into battle.

Saul's daughter, Michal, married David, but was torn between her love for him and the worldview of her father. She clearly disdained his "crazy dancing." The text tells of her looking out the window and seeing "King David leaping and dancing before Hashem, and she was contemptuous of him in her heart."

"How honored was the king of Israel today," she asked David with disdain, "who exposed himself today in the eyes of his servant's maidservants, as one of the boors might expose himself!"

"Could you dance like King David?," asked Rabbi Hoffman.

"Maybe," I replied.

"Go ahead and do it," said Rabbi Hoffman. "Dance."


"Right now. Get up and dance."

"I can't."

"Why can't you?"

"I don't want to look foolish."

The rabbi nodded with understanding.

"What is foolish is the voice of conformity," he said. "To find G-d we need to step out and that will never be found in conventional approval."

Teaching circles

The rabbi began to weave his teaching circles together. What is the link between "crazy dancing" and the energy of good governance represented by malkhut?

He drew a comparison between King David and Sammy Glick, the driven, friendless title character from Budd Schulberg's classic 1941 novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?," about an early Hollywood studio mogul.

"Sammy Glick had great inner insecurity so he compulsively sought outward nobility in the world," said Rabbi Hoffman. "And that experience of inner insecurity was not unknown to generations of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution and trying to make the most of success in America. With marginalization in a culture you always carry a feeling of being less than. But that quest for worldly success without the balance of an inner life came with a cost. Like Saul, Sammy Glick had an outer-nobility, but an inner depression."

"David, from the outside, was the worst role model for kids. But inside he had malkhut, an inner nobility, a sense of infinite worth from carrying Hashem's essence. And we all have that same inner-nobility. David left us a great model in maintaining trust in Hashem despite our outer flaws and mistakes."

In Rabbi Hoffman's worldview one of our most frequent mistakes is judge others or ourselves without looking beneath surface appearances to the qualities of the soul.

The absent father

To Rabbi Hoffman, Saul represents "the absent father"- fathers so preoccupied with the workaday world that they neglect opportunities for intimacy with their families

"That's a dilemma I thought I would avoid being a rabbi and centering my life on other values," said Rabbi Hoffman. "But it's still a struggle. Whatever we do we have to find balance. There's always something that can take our time away from those closest to us."

"Being emotionally present," said Rabbi Hoffman "is the symbol of the dance. Being emotionally present to others and ourselves is what protects us from depression and rigidity. Pain and fear leave us defended. We guard the empty space and create a wall between ourselves and G-d and other people. Anger can also close us up."

"Is this like the Zen master filling a tea cup to the brim and asking the student to find a way to pour more in order to show that we need to be empty to allow ourselves to learn?" I asked.

The empty cup

"Our perceptions can become rigid and blocked," said Rabbi Hoffman. "We need that empty space so that we can have an open perception to engage the world. The empty cup is about letting go of control and ego. That's what David was able to do with his dancing. He was able to let go and open his perception to his inner-nobility.

"David's 'crazy dancing' is symbolic of a process we all need to undertake. Intimacy with Hashem and other people requires letting go and this can look silly."

This idea of letting go to find our inner nobility, our sense of malkhut, is what ties "crazy dancing" and malkhut to Shabbat, the day of rest., according to Rabbi Hoffman.

David's "crazy dancing" is also symbolic of the spirit of Judaism in times of great despair.

He concluded with a story of a Chassidic community in the Warsaw Ghetto in the darkest days of the Second World War.

"The Holy Fire"

"There was a man who lived in the ghetto," he said. "It was a time when you could hate being a Jew. There was so much suffering. There were only 20,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto. The man heard that there was a call from a well known rabbi, the Aish Hodesh ("The Holy Fire") for the community to gather in secret and dance. This guy thought 'Why dance?' Everyone seemed to be going so he went too. Someone would say 'The rabbi's not coming. He lost his daughter.' Somebody else said , 'No. he's coming.' He heard another person say, 'The rebbe's not coming. He lost a son.' Someone else would reply, 'No. He's coming.' The Aish Hodesh came and announced that Hashem was blessed and started the dance.

"What would it take for a Jew to dance like that to bless Hashem in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust? It was a time when most people wouldn't have taken a million dollars to be a Jew. That dance could only have come from a deep sense of inner nobility."

Rabbi Hoffman combines the lesson of inner nobility, malkhut, and letting go, Shabbat, at his synagogue services where participants welcome Shabbat by "dancing like crazy."

"If you don't want to look like a fool," said Rabbi Hoffman, "you can't be a Jew."