A Jewish Renewal Simchat Torah

The sanctuary is full of people. A voice calls out "Ana Adonai, hoshia na!" ("Please, God, bring salvation!") and the whole room echoes it. "Ana Adonai, hatzlicha na!" ("Please, God, help us!") and the whole room echoes it. And then the band strikes up and everyone is singing "Aneinu, aneinu, b'yom koreinu" ("Answer us, answer us, on the day when we call!") Then the band shifts seamlessly into a wild whirling Hasidic niggun, and the whole room is singing, and all along the aisle people are standing with their hands raised to make a kind of London Bridge, and people dance beneath the raised hands carrying Torah scrolls. All around the sanctuary there is dancing: circle dancing, spiral dancing, people hoisting the Torah scrolls up like a wedding couple. The whole room is singing and dancing and rejoicing as though the Torah were the most joyful thing imaginable. It is wild. It is sweet. It is a kind of celebratory Jewish mosh pit. It is unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

Welcome to Simchat Torah at Romemu.

Here's the livestream. The Torahs come out of the ark around the 35-minute mark. Scroll to minute 45 to get a sense for what the hakafot were like. (If the embed isn't showing up for you, you can go to the video.)


One of the challenges of smalltown life is that it's not always easy to convene a quorum when minor holidays roll around. Maybe especially when those holidays come at the tail end of a dense and action-packed season of religious observance. The final holiday in the long round of fall observances is Simchat Torah, the festival of "rejoicing in the Torah." On Simchat Torah we sing and dance with the Torah. Sometimes we read the end of the Torah, followed immediately by the beginning.

Some communities unroll a Torah scroll from beginning to end, and people (wearing protective gloves so as not to hurt the parchment) hold it up in a giant circle, and then someone looks for a blessing for each person based on the verses near where their hands happen to be. (We did that here, some years ago.) Many communities dance seven circuits of the room while carrying the Torah -- one for each day of the week, one for each color of the rainbow, one for each of seven sefirot  / qualities of God.

Sometimes there's a special aliyah, an "ascent" to the Torah, for children. Sometimes there's constant singing and dancing. Sometimes the Torah is carried in a kind of festive parade around the sanctuary, preceded and followed by kids waving flags. One way or another, Simchat Torah is meant to be big, celebratory, raucous, joyful...and those things can be hard to provide in a small town shul, especially one where most people (including me!) have never experienced a big Simchat Torah celebration.

Plus, by this time of year, a lot of people have holiday fatigue. First there was Selichot, then the  cemetery service, two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, five services on Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret services with Yizkor, and what, you mean there's another holiday after all of that?! The last few years, it's been challenging to get anyone to show up for Simchat Torah. So we've let the holiday go, at least for now. In a small town community it's hard to do everything.

I had resigned myself to not having a Simchat Torah this year. But then I had an unexpected opportunity, at the last minute, to celebrate Simchat Torah with friends at Romemu, my friend Rabbi David Ingber's big Jewish Renewal shul in New York city. The invitation came, and I thought "...wow, that sounds amazing, I wonder whether that's possible?" Against all odds the stars aligned and I was able to make the trip. And holy wow, am I glad that I did. It was every bit as awesome as I had hoped.


During ma'ariv, the evening service, some of the niggunim which became liturgical melodies had a hauntingly familiar ring to them. Oh, wait, that wasn't festival nusach, that was the "Gilligan's Island" theme! And the theme to the "Brady Bunch!" There was a lot of laughter, and that was a wonderful way to begin the evening together. Laughter, and prayer, and singing with our arms around each other. The evening service was short and sweet and delightful -- a warm-up to the main event.

And then Reb David (Ingber, not Markus -- I am blessed with a lot of Reb Davids in my life) spoke about Simchat Torah. It's been a difficult week, he said. In a lot of places. And yet on this day we sing and dance with the Torah -- in the manner of the Hasidic masters, who also knew profound suffering, and who made the existential choice to sing and dance and rejoice not as a way of ignoring the suffering, but with full awareness of our broken places. We bring our brokenness into the dance.

And then the ark was opened, and the Torah scrolls came out, and Reb David invited everyone in their 70s to come up and lead the first hakafah, the first circle-dance with the Torah around the sanctuary. And a voice called out "Ana Adonai, hoshia na!" and the room echoed the traditional call-and-response which is part of our liturgy of celebratory psalms. And the voice called out "Ana Adonai, hatzlicha na!" and the room echoed. And then the band began to play, and everyone began to dance.


When the call came for everyone in their 40s to come up and lead a hakafah, I went. We sang the call and response, and the band began to play, and I joined the chain of people who ducked, laughing, to dance beneath the raised arms of the community. The human tunnel stretched halfway around the sanctuary. And then when we emerged from beneath those raised hands, we joined hands and danced a hora, a grapevine dance, a spiral dance, circles within circles with the Torahs in the middle.

I did a do-si-do with one of my best friends, and then with one of my beloved teachers, and then with my friend again. I danced and sang and spun until I was dizzy and out of breath and my heart was pounding like the bass and the drums and my heart vibrated like the saxophone and guitar. I collapsed into a seat, laughing and singing. I got up and danced again. I hugged people I love who I don't see very often (none of whom knew I was coming to the city, because this was such a last-minute miracle.)

This is what it means to be a Jew: not only to wrestle with Torah, not only to study and argue with Torah, but to dance with Torah. To dance with our story. The last letter of Torah is ל and the first letter is ב and when we put them together, end-to-beginning, we get לב, lev, which means heart. Torah is at the heart of who we are, and even when our hearts are broken, we embrace our story, we embrace each other, and we dance. By the time we had danced all seven hakafot, my whole being was uplifted.

And this morning I rode that spiritual updraft all the way back home.


Three more holidays at the very end of Sukkot

There are three distinct and special celebrations at the end of Sukkot. The first of them, Hoshana Rabbah, is today.

HoshanaRabba09_9Hoshana Rabbah -- "The Great 'Save-Us!'" -- is the seventh day of Sukkot and a minor holiday in its own right. On this day, traditionally, we make seven circuits of our sanctuaries with our lulavim and our Torah scrolls while reciting prayers called Hoshanot which ask God to bring healing and salvation. Seven is a number with spiritual significance in Judaism: seven days of the week, the seven "lower" (accessible) sefirot (aspects of God), the seven ancestral figures (some invite seven men and seven women) welcomed into the Sukkah as ushpizin (holy guests) -- and now on the seventh day of this festival we circumnambulate our sanctuaries seven times, singing and praying. There's also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground; the falling willow leaves are an embodied prayer for rain. (For more on that: The Ritual of Beating the Willow.)

Even if you're not dancing or processing around a sanctuary with branches and Torah scrolls, reading some hoshanot and reflecting on their meaning is a lovely observance of Hoshana Rabbah. I like the ones written by my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, which online here at the Reb Zalman Legacy Project blog, and also here at the Shalom Center (with commentary from Rabbi Arthur Waskow below the hoshanot themselves.) And here's a brief excerpt from a translated hoshana, provided by Rabbi David Seidenberg of NeoHasid.org.

Shemini Atzeret -- "The Pausing of the Eighth Day" -- is the eighth day of Sukkot. Yes, Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but tradition tells us that on the eighth day, God (Who has been so enjoying spending time with us in our sukkot) says "awww, do you really have to go? Can't you linger a little longer?" So we stay in our sukkot for one more day, one more chance to engage in intimate connection with Shekhinah, the immanent and indwelling Presence of God. This is a day for spaciousness, a day of pausing, a day to celebrate the white space which cradles and contains all of the texts and teachings and observances of the holiday season now ending. The Days of Awe and Sukkot are a dense and busy time, full of obligations and sermons and teachings; Shemini Atzeret is a chance to pause, to take a breath, to receive the blessings of stillness.

This day is a hinge-point in our liturgical year between the summer season and the winter season. On Shemini Atzeret, we recite special prayers for rain, and we enter into the liturgical winter-season when our Amidah contains a one-line prayer for rain every day instead of the summertime one-line prayer for dew. I've written a contemporary prayer for rain which can be read / davened on this day, which you can find in the VR archives here; you might also enjoy my Sestina for Shemini Atzeret, which I wrote last year and which I still really like. Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts through tomorrow (Monday).

Children-kiss-torahSimchat Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah" -- is the culmination of all of our celebrations during this holy season. We read the very end of the Torah scroll, then read the beginning again, celebrating the neverending nature of our collective story. We dance around the room with Torah scrolls singing songs. Here's the poem I wrote some years ago for this festival, Mobius, which is also available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011.)

So when is Simchat Torah? Well, it depends on who you ask. In Israel, Sukkot lasts for seven days; the seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah; and the 8th day is both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Reform communities outside of the land of Israel also operate on this calendar. (I'm not sure about Reconstructionist communities; Jewish Renewal communities' practices vary.) In Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative Jews move from 7 days of Sukkot (the final one being Hoshana Rabbah) to two days of Shemini Atzeret, the second of which is Simchat Torah, making the whole shebang a 9-day observance insted of an 8-day one. (In my local community we'll celebrate Simchat Torah on Monday night, in conjunction with the local college Jewish student group.)

It's possible to experience a kind of holiday fatigue at this moment in the year. Tisha b'Av, then the month of Elul, then Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot...! But there's beauty and meaning in each of these three final days of this holiday season. I offer this blessing: may each of us find a point of access into the beauty and wisdom of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. May we connect with the gift of being able to ask for help in healing our world, the gift of holy pausing and sacred rest, and the gift of Torah, the story which never ends.

 


This week's portion: mobius

MOBIUS (V'ZOT HA-BRAKHA)


I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending

each year the words are the same
but something in us is different

on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah


One of my favorite moments in all the year comes when we read the solemn last lines of the Torah -- these last words from this week's portion, V'Zot HaBrakha -- and immediately read the opening lines of the Torah. Sometimes we do it with two scrolls. Sometimes we unroll a single scroll all the way from end to end, holding it in gloved fingers carefully in a giant circle around the room so we can see it in all of its complex beauty. We read the ending, and then we read the beginning.

It's the original neverending story. Just as the story of human growth and potential never ends, only spirals onward, so our reading of the Torah never ends but we begin again. For me as a lover of story, this says something important about who we are and how we understand ourselves.

 Every year offers us a chance to begin again. Every year that new beginning is informed by who we are and where we've been. One door closes and another one opens. The last words lead to the first words which will eventually, a year from now, lead us to the last words again. And then, again, the first words. One of my favorite moments in all the year.

[mobius.mp3]

 

Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

 


Rejoicing in our story

We gathered at the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College: members of my shul and members of the shul up the road. Some of us had celebrated Shavuot together, so there were familiar faces.

A local musician had brought a car full of big beautiful drums, and he led us in some drumming and singing to get the spirit flowing. I wound up playing a plastic tambourine so enthusiastically I came home with a bruise on the heel of my left palm. A young man from my shul lit the festival candles, and we all said the blessing together.

We removed all of the Torah scrolls from the ark -- big and small, Torahs of all sizes -- and made seven hakafot, processions around the room. Before each hakafah one of the two rabbis present called or sang out the blessing, and then started a song. We sang and drummed as the scrolls were carried and danced around the room. For the first few circuits, we made a kind of London Bridge out of our raised hands, and the scrolls were carried between us. When I was handed a scroll, I waltzed it around the room, holding it close. One person hoisted his scroll into the air the way we lift a bride or groom on a chair at a wedding.

And then we took one scroll into the bigger room, and stood in an enormous circle with all the children in the middle, and passed around a box of surgical gloves, and then unfurled the entire Torah. Each of us helped to hold it up, in our gloved hands. It took a surprisingly long time, and a lot of space, to unroll it all. (A full-sized Torah stretches almost the length of a football field, I'm told.) It amazed me: not only the beauty of the words and the calligraphy, but the graphic design of it, the places where white space shapes the feel of the text. Black fire on white fire.

And we retold the story, looking around the scroll and cherrypicking highlights, reminders of how our narrative has gone in the year that's just ended. We chanted two aliyot from the very end of the scroll -- Moses dies, and the Israelites mourn, and Joshua ben Nun has the spirit of wisdom that Moses transmitted to him; he will lead the people forward, though there will never be another like Moses. And then before the fact of having finished could sink in, we chanted the very beginning of the scroll: suddenly the world is entirely brand-new, ruach elohim hovering over the face of the waters, and God sees what has been created and calls it good. Evening and morning, the first day.

Going from the end to the beginning always knocks me flat. Every year we read this same story, but every year we are different, and see the old story through new eyes. And what seems like the end is always already the beginning. We live in linear time and we live in circular time. We hit the same highlights each year, holidays and seasons and anniversaries, but each year we're in a new place, a new twist in the spiral of our lives.

And then we sang while we rolled the scroll back up, restoring her to her usual form. And then it was time for dessert, and I quietly slipped away.


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Rejoicing and lingering, Torah and tears

Today is Shemini Atzeret. The name is usually translated as "The assembly of the eighth day," because it's celebrated on the eighth day of Sukkot. Which is, yes, a seven-day holiday. (Don't ask me how a holiday can simultaneously be a seven-day festival, and also have an eighth day, without therefore being considered an eight-day festival. To complicate matters, there's also Simchat Torah, which is celebrated on the ninth day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot in communities that observe two days of Yom Tov, but in Israel and in the Reform world it's celebrated on the eighth day, which makes it coterminous with Shemini Atzeret.) Right. Moving on...

In Torah we read "On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering (atzeret); you shall not work at your occupations." (Num. 29:35.) The rabbis, in typical fashion, hung an interpretation on a Hebrew pun; they asserted that God invites all those who made a Sukkot pilgrimage to tarry (atzeret) in God's presence an extra day. In other words, God is so enjoying playing host to us that God urges us to stick around just a little bit longer. Sukkot is a festival of fruition and joy, and today invites us to carry that joy beyond the boundaries of the week-long holiday, into what comes next, into our lives.

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