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Reflections on Simchat Torah

October 2009

Two weeks ago we celebrated “Sukkot”- our beloved Feast of Tabernacles. But there’s a one day holiday tagged on to the tail-end of that week long festival, which I feel, sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. In Hebrew it’s called “Simchat Torah” and it means “Rejoicing with the Torah”. It follows the last day of Sukkot so directly, that there isn’t even any time to dismantle and put away our Sukkot booths that we built and lived in all week.

In a way, it’s hard to make Simchat Torah special because it follows such an incredible holiday of Sukkot, with its leafy roofed booths and the ceremonious Four Species. In order to make sure we treat this new holiday with its own due respect, we make sure NOT to eat in the Sukka and move back indoors. It’s a slightly ambiguous holiday because it doesn’t really commemorate any specific historical event. Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Passover commemorates the Exodus from our enslavement in Egypt. The Feast of Tabernacles reminds us of the huts the Israelites lived in as they wandered in the wilderness. Hanukah memorializes the Maccabean defeat of Antiochus and the rededication of the Temple. And Simchat Torah? We are simply celebrating the fact—rejoicing in the knowledge– that we have the Torah. So why now? The reading of the weekly Torah passage every Shabbat in our synagogues is set up in such a way, that every year we finish reading all Five Books of Moses. And the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings falls right now.

The holiday starts, as do all Jewish holidays, at night. Everyone hurries to their synagogues, dressed in festive clothing… and comfortable shoes! (You’ll see why!) The Holy Ark is opened and all the Torah Scrolls the synagogue owns are lifted out and handed to the Rabbis of the community. The Torahs are then carried around the sanctuary in a series of seven circuits. The leader announces invocations imploring G-d to “Save us” and “Answer us on the day we call out to you”. Although each circuit need only encompass the synagogue once, they sometimes last for hours, and this is where the rejoicing comes in!

All the worshipers leave their seats and the dancing and singing that erupts then is a wondrous sight to see. Fathers swing their young children onto their shoulders, the eyes of the toddlers shining with excitement, their chubby hands clutching flags and miniature toy Torah scrolls. Teenagers grab each other’s hands, infecting the older people of the crowd with their enthusiasm, and the dancing begins. The Torah Scrolls get passed from hand to hand and at each beginning of a cycle, another group of congregants is honored with the beginning chant. I noticed that people react differently to holding the Torah Scrolls. Some hold the Torah close, stepping slowly and surely with the reverent realization of what is in their arms. Some walk around the circle, their eyes glowing with a quiet passion, not seeming to notice the frenzied frolicking around them. And some let loose. They dance with the Torahs in their arms with a barely controlled wildness of sorts as they grip the wooden handles of the Scrolls and raise the Torahs high above their heads, twirling with a frenzy of love.

My daughters were standing on the side at one point, discussing when they last witnessed such an ecstatic display of dancing. They noted that it resembled the dancing at a Jewish wedding, when the guests surround the bride and groom, circling around them with dancing as they celebrate the couple’s union. They commented that on Simchat Torah the “guest of honor”, the center of our circle and focus is the Torah. Interesting. In Isaiah, Chapter 62 the Bible reads, “As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Verse 5). Tradition has built upon this and other verses in the Scriptures to highlight the concept that our relationship with G-d is comparable to the relationship between a husband and wife. We are married to G-d and to His holy Torah.

The Seven Circuits of Dancing occur at night and then again in the morning. Sometimes the dancing spills over from the synagogue into the streets, almost as if the confines of the building limit our ability to express what we need to express. Our local religious youth group gathers their school-age members and go through the streets of the community, singing and dancing with the Torah. They specifically circle the area where there is more of a concentration of secular Jews. It is a beautiful thing to see people coming out of their houses to investigate the sounds coming from the street, and staying to watch. Some respectfully and lovingly reach out to touch and kiss the Torah as it passes. Some- adults and children alike- allow themselves to be pulled into the circles of dancing with their neighbors, everyone celebrating our Torah as one. During the morning services, the youth group also tries to visit each synagogue in the neighborhood- spilling noisily into the congregation’s dancing, joining hands for a few circuits and then moving on to share their spirited energy with the next synagogue.

When the seven circuits of dancing are over, a prayer shawl is held up high by a few men, spreading a canopy of sorts over the cantor’s platform and all little children are invited to stand underneath it. Parents hold their babies and toddlers who are too young to stand alone. It is a special time for the small children and everyone sings out the prayer taken from Genesis, “May the angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

The complete cycle of the Torah readings is completed at this time, but in order to show G-d- and ourselves- that we understand there is no end to our study of and involvement in the Torah, we don’t get to the end of the Torah Scrolls at the conclusion of Deuteronomy and stop. Even for a week! The assigned chanter finishes the last verse of Deuteronomy and immediately starts reading from the beginning of the scroll, from the very first verses of Genesis. Our life of Torah is cyclical. It surrounds us; it threads our lives together with the security of its constancy, its repetition, the familiar succession of stories, laws and morals.

And then things calm down a bit. Simchat Torah shares the day with the holiday mentioned in the Bible — Shemini Atzeret- literally, the Eighth Day of Assembly. “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly” (Numbers 29:35). We just finished the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement and seven days of The Feast of Tabernacles, and this eighth day is G-d’s way of saying “I don’t want you to leave just yet!” And it’s our way of saying that we don’t want this connection, this spiritual high we enjoyed of the rapid succession of the Days of Awe and then the Feast of Tabernacles, to end, so we add on just one more day!

The most central part of Shemini Atzeret is the Prayer for Rain. For we are now ready. The summer months are over; we no longer need to be outside in our Sukka booths when precipitation would be unwelcome. We are ready. For a season filled with the blessing of rain. It is sometimes hard to go straight from the merriment of dancing to the gravity appropriate for a prayer which holds such magnitude in our desert country… a country that depends on G-d to grant us rain. The prayer is moving, beseeching G-d, the source of all bounty to allow the heavens to open up and wash over us with blessing.

This past year was a very hard one. The Sea of Galilee is drying up; the grass in our gardens has turned to straw. We must pray and continue to pray. We must mend our ways and trust that G-d will reward us—shower us—with blessing. For He has promised us: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4)


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities