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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 ", 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.