“Sometimes a group of people happily dancing together take hold of someone who is standing miserable and depressed on the outside. They pull him into the dance circle despite himself, forcing him to rejoice with them. Similarly, when a person is happy, his pain and sadness may move to the sidelines. But a higher level is to pursue the sadness itself and pull it into the dance circle.”
– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, on bringing your sadness with you
This text is a really important one for me. What I love the most is that it is about an interplay – it’s not about avoiding sadness, respressing sadness, or leaving sadness on the sidelines. “The higher way is to pursue the sorrow,” Nahman says, to bring it with you into the dancing circle. I also appreciate that he uses the language of transformation. That doesn’t mean the sadness disappears – it’s part of that transformation.
I can’t help but think about the characters of Joy and Sadness and their transformations in Pixar’s Inside Out. At the beginning, Joy doesn’t want anything to do with Sadness. She tries to put Sadness in a circle – or, as Nahman might say, leave Sadness on the sidelines.
In the closing scene (SPOILER ALERT) Joy and Sadness work together to bring about a sort of Nahmanian transformation. It’s beautiful, and if you haven’t seen it (or haven’t seen it recently), I recommend watching it with Nahman in mind.
While music and dance don’t exactly* show up in Inside Out, according to Nahman, these spiritual technologies are an instrumental** part of the sorrow/joy transformation. Michael Fishbane writes that for Nahman, “Dance is both the arch-act and the arch-metaphor” for the “cathartic process” that “pursues the agents of one’s depression in all their guises and transforms them through the agency of joy…Rabbi Nahman goes on to stress how depression is an illness, a hola’at when the cords of joy are snapped…The antidote is the joy of dance. Its circular swirl draws the heavenly Shekhinah down to the earthly realm where it may alight upon the sick soul (holeh) in healing union.”
I’ve been in that circular swirl many times before. I wrote about a few of those moments already in my letter to Nahman two weeks ago. But one of them in particular rises to the surface for me each year around this time, because it feels linked to Parashat Chayei Sarah, which we read this coming Shabbat. In the parsha, Sarah dies and her son Isaac marries Rebecca. Abraham, Sarah’s husband, marries a new wife named Keturah, and Abraham dies at the end of the chapter. Isaac takes Rebecca to his mother’s tent and she comforts him in his grief. This is a story that includes two weddings and two burials. Joy and sadness, grief and love, all in the same unfolding story.
Similarly, in December 2015, I officiated my grandmother’s funeral the day before I officiated my brother’s wedding. Loss and love, celebration and grief, crammed up beside one another in Torah, and in life. We can try to compartmentalize; we can pretend to leave the losses behind before we jump into joyful celebration. But at the wedding it felt like she should have been there, and we danced with her memory, grateful and grieving all at once, as the night turned to morning, and a new day began. Sadness was not sidelined at the wedding. It was right in the circle with us, holding hands with Joy and transforming with us, one musical note at a time.
*I might argue that play is analogous to dance in this movie, especially as it relates to the character of Bingbong.