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Celebrating Simchat Torah
As Jews, we have a long history of eschewing physical representations for fear of practicing idolatry. When we speak of Torah, we often mean the words of Torah and all the commentaries, laws and ideas that have sprung forth from these words.
Throughout the year, Torah permeates our lives on an intellectual, emotional or moral level. For many of us, it is only on Shabbat that we are confronted with the physical presence of the scroll. We engage its physical presence on Shabbat -- we take it lovingly out of the ark, we hold it in our arms, we turn our bodies toward it and kiss our tzitzit to it as we process it around the room; we hold it up and we undress and dress it with the utmost care. However, our primary relationship with Torah is through the heart and the mind, not the body.
Simchat Torah breaks this mold by focusing on the actual scrolls. We are less concerned with the meaning of the last words of Deuteronomy and the first words of Genesis, which will again be read and discussed on the coming Shabbat. Simchat Torah marks the physical end of the scroll by reading from the last part of Deuteronomy and the physical beginning by rolling it all the way back to the start of Genesis.
All the Torahs are taken out of the ark. They each have their moment of love as the congregation dances them around, singing with joy. In some congregations, the Torahs are taken out onto the street, as if to invite the whole world to come closer to the Torah, to emphasize that the Torah can meet you where you are.
I remember going through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., once, and on display in a glass box in the center of one room was a desecrated Torah scroll. I cried when I saw it, surprised to have such a visceral reaction to an object when the stories of murdered people were being told all around me. Yet in that ripped and burnt scroll was the whole story of the Holocaust.
The Torah represented the Jewish people, not just in its form, but because the words contained within it have charted the days and weeks of Jews throughout the centuries. Every week on Shabbat, when Jews read from the Torah and study these words, we once again make them our own. They are simultaneously our past and our present, our Jewish continuity and the material from which we innovate, making the words relevant to our lives year after year.
I have heard stories of women who have held the Torah for the first time, dancing with it on Simchat Torah, and these stories also move me to tears. One woman describes going to a specific shul in Jerusalem on Simchat Torah, with the permission of her rabbi, in order to be able to hold the Torah. This reminds us all that Torah is a gift, and being close to it is a privilege that we are charged with sharing.
When you dance with the Torah this holiday, let the physical presence of the scroll and the words contained within it adhere to your body just as you let the words of a devar Torah seep into your mind.
When we dance with the Torah, we are celebrating everything we are given by it. We are physically acknowledging the Torah's role in guiding our lives. We are literally being touched by the words of Torah, enacting the metaphor that is usually reserved to describe something much less tangible. This is the enactment of joy.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected].