On This Day, Even Torah Dances in a Circle


Please don't look to me to decide whether Jerry should have left and Harry should have stayed. That is well beyond my pay grade. But this I know. You don't have to dance with the Stars of David to know that the most popular dance that Jews have is the hora.

And this, too, I know. You don't have to be Rachel Ray to know that the most common Jewish cuisine is kugel. So what's the connection? Answer: The main ingredient in both is a circle.

Simply put, if you're not dancing in a circle, you're not dancing the hora, and if your kugel is not round, it is not a kugel. It may be a casserole or a quiche, but it is not — linguistically, at least — a kugel. Did you know that many yiddishists and linguists suggest that the word "kugel" is derived from the Hebrew composite word, k'agol, meaning "like a circle"? That said, I invite you to dance with me for a moment into my world of circular reasoning.

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill points out that one of the most significant contributions the Jews have given the world is the notion of time and, in particular, the notion of linear time. Simply stated, each phase is full of progress, each epoch is pregnant with meaning, ultimately moving toward a higher purpose. This concept obviously gave birth to the notion that history has a sort of transcendent meaning, but it does run the risk that one can jettison the past in the name of the future.

It's the notion of circular time that is far more compelling. And this circular time — or spiral time, as some have termed it — does not negate or nullify the import and impact of linear time, but it does add, I believe, a more authentic Jewish meter and measurement. First, let's learn a small, but significant, Hebrew word.

The word that in Hebrew denotes holiday is chag — indeed, do we not all know this word?

It's part and parcel of the holiday blessing that we share with each other — Chag sameach. But the word really means "to encircle." In our continual coming back full circle, as it were, we are reminded of the source of our true strength and singularity.

The Jewish holidays, the chagim, through their unique mitzvah mandates, are periodic markers writ large that help us to recall and reconnect to our "purpose." So I ask a simple question: "What is the unique mitzvah moment of Simchat Torah?"

The answer is, rabbinically, there isn't one. Simchat Torah, as we celebrate it, is not mentioned in the Talmud, but there are several sweet comportments that warrant our attention.

'People With a Purpose'
On Simchat Torah, we take out all of the Torah scrolls from the Ark and — with joyful abandon — dance around the synagogue.

And how do Jews dance, you ask? In a circle, of course. Have you ever noticed how the Torah is lifted up as it is shown to the congregation? One has to be very dexterous to pull this off because it is literally turned in a 360º fashion. How sweet. Even the Torah, so to speak, dances in a circle, on Simchat Torah.

Pay attention. As we complete the entire Torah reading cycle, we immediately start reading from the beginning of the Torah. That is to say, on Simchat Torah, we conclude the book of Deuteronomy and we come — you guessed it — full circle, back to the book of Genesis.

These are the practices of this chag. There is no mitzvah per se, except this going in a circle with our Torah — our shared, sacred story. For the Jewish people, it is our sustained relationship with Torah — her values and visions, her ideas and ideals, her teachings and themes — that make us a "people with a purpose."

True, we may be on different points of the circle, but we must all recognize that only together can we dance the hora.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.


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