Reflecting on The Tribe

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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