This is the moment we've all been waiting for. After a year of reading and studying the Torah week after week, we are ready to show our love for Torah by dancing with it. On Simchat Torah - literally the day on which we celebrate the Joy of Torah - we read the final passages of Deuteronomy and the first of Genesis. Every ending brings with it a new beginning, and with every beginning, an opportunity to dance.
But this year's dancing will be a bit different. We haven't read the Torah out loud in synagogue week after week, and feeling unencumbered joy during a pandemic is both difficult and brings with it feelings of guilt. How can I dance while so many are fatigued due to COVID-19? How can I celebrate the sweet taste of Torah on my tongue while so many have sensory deficiencies, even after recovering from the virus?
We will not be dancing with large crowds, nor will most of us have the opportunity to hold the physical Torah scroll close to our bodies or spread it out in front of our eyes.
How else can we celebrate Simchat Torah this year?
In the same way that one oftentimes celebrates their school graduation with a meal with their closest family and family-friends, the Jewish tradition honors the completion of a unit of Torah study with a seudah, or festive meal.
"וַיָּבוֹא יְרוּשָׁלָיִם וַיַּעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה' וַיַּעַל עֹלוֹת וַיַּעַשׂ שְׁלָמִים וַיַּעַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּה לְכָל עֲבָדָיו" (מלכים א ג:טו), אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מִכָּאן שֶׁעוֹשִׂין סְעוּדָה לְגָמְרָהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה.
“And [Shlomo] went to Jerusalem, stood before the Ark of the Covenant of God and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings... and he made a banquet for all his servants” (Kings I 3:15). Rabbi Elazar said: From here we learn that one makes a feast for the completion of the Torah.
Photo credit: Rebekah Lowin, https://rebekahlowin.com/
On your own or with your family or close friends, this year's Simchat Torah offers the opportunity to pick a unit of text - perhaps one you've studied before or even a new one - and to dig deeply into that text so that when you have completed it, you feel a sense of joy and clarity. Whether you are studying a whole book of the Torah, a chapter of Talmud, or simply unpacking a few verses for new meaning, all growth is worth celebrating.
Gather your small group together for the festive meal and share Divrei Torah (words of Torah) from your particular area of study.
After all, the Mishnah suggests that words of Torah around the meal table can make what might seem like a lonely table the most elevated of all:
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר...שְׁלשָׁה שֶׁאָכְלוּ עַל שֻׁלְחָן אֶחָד וְאָמְרוּ עָלָיו דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, כְּאִלּוּ אָכְלוּ מִשֻּׁלְחָנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יחזקאל מא) וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלַי זֶה הַשֻּׁלְחָן אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי ה':
Rabbi Shimon said:..if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, blessed be He, as it is said, “And He said unto me, ‘this is the table before the Lord’” (Ezekiel 41:22).
Filling one's stomach is one way of marking completion; looking beyond one's own needs towards others is another. There is a custom on Simchat Torah to commit to contributing to one's community:
..ונוהגין באשכנז שהמסיים והמתחיל נודרין נדבות וקוראין לכל מרעיהן ועושין משתה ושמחה ויום טוב לסיומה של תורה ולהתחלתה...
...And in Ashkenaz, the custom is that the one who reads and concludes [the Torah reading] make pledges and donations, and call to all their friends and make a feast, celebration and Yom Tov for the completion and renewal of the Torah.
On this Simchat Torah, take some time to reflect on where your various communities could use your support.
- Are there individuals who are lonely and would benefit from a visitor?
- Could you help any senior citizens who are struggling with technology to communicate with others?
- How can you be more politically aware and civically engaged?
In the spirit of this custom, try committing to a few acts of chesed, tzedakah, and advocacy in the coming year. Action, after all, is the intended end of Torah study:
וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול נענה ר"ע ואמר תלמוד גדול נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה
Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater as study leads to action.
The very last mitzvah in the Torah is to write a Sefer Torah, based on one of the last verses in the last book of the Torah, which refers to the Torah as a song or poem:
(יט) וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
(19) Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem (shirah) may be My witness against the people of Israel.
What do you think makes the Torah a poem or a song? The special layout and shapes of the letters? The tune in which it's chanted? The symphony of 70 distinct voices and interpretations of Torah which harmonize together?
When does the Torah sing to you, and when have you felt inspire to sing back to it?
Take a look at the many poems expressing one's loving relationship with the Torah written by Jews both medieval and modern, and try your hand at writing some of your own songs or poetry.
Generally, there is a rabbinic prohibition on dancing on Jewish holidays (Yamim Tovim). But Simchat Torah is different. Even when we might not otherwise dance, we dance on this day in order to honor the Torah.
Most of us have not danced for a while, and it may even feel sacrilege to do so in the middle of a pandemic. But for one day a year, on Simchat Torah, we are given permission to do what might otherwise feel unnatural or against the spirit of the day.
How might we be able to dance mindfully when we will all be alone in one way or another on this Simchat Torah? There won't be excessive or rowdy dancing with others, but there is always something within us that is dancing, a flame which cannot be extinguished:
(כז) נֵ֣ר יְ֭הוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם...
The flame of God is the soul of man...
If you ever look closely at a candle's flame, you'll see that its body dances in different directions, wherever the light wind may blow. Even when our spirit or morale suffers, the book of Proverbs and the mystical interpretations of this verse suggest that we each have a similarly dancing flame within us, and that flame is divine. In the absence of others' physical or emotional touch on this Simchat Torah, may we get in touch with this inner flame and find the strength to dance in harmony with it.
There is no right way to celebrate Simchat Torah this year (or any year, for that matter). Whether you mark the holiday with a meal, through commitment to service, by appreciating ancient and modern Torah poetry, by engaging in physical or spiritual dance, or in some other way you find meaningful and grounding, you are in good company.
הגה...ועוד נוהגין במדינות אלו להוציא בשמחת תורה ערבית ושחרית כל ספרי תורות שבהיכל ואומרים זמירות ותשבחות וכל מקום לפי מנהגו...
Rema:...They had the custom in these lands to take out all the Torah scrolls from the aron on Simchat Torah at ma’ariv and shacharit, and sing songs and praises, each place in accordance with its custom...