Simchat Torah: Dancing With God’s Words

October 16, 2019
Photo by Christin Lola/ iStock / Getty Images

On Simchat Torah, we enliven our senses.After spending a week joyously immersed in Creation while sitting in a sukkah, we now take the Torah, the closest physical manifestation of the Holy One, and embrace it like a date with our beloved and we dance the night away. Feeling the warmth and intimacy of this most sacred vessel, we ecstatically dance like King David: “David danced with all his strength before HaShem.”

This must seem like a bizarre practice — grown men and woman caressing the Torah. Yet for all its intellectual focus, Judaism offers each of us a doorway into an embodied and spiritual experience. Open, the Torah enables you to read, chant and consume ancient words, leading you to new vistas of understanding. Closed, the Torah proudly sits in the ark, representing God’s presence, waiting to be held and embraced.

Simchat Torah, Celebration of Torah, is a yearly recommitment ceremony to return to the beginning of the scroll, to read and study the depth of its teachings. Its stories and teachings may inspire a deeper level of personal and spiritual growth. It is an invitation to know more about our tradition, God and whom we can become.

The earliest scroll dates to the return from Babylonia to land of Israel after the traumatic experiences of expulsion and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. Prophet and scribe Ezra reads Torah for the first time in a public square for all to hear. With no vowels, no chant marks and no punctuation, Torah looks like one run-on sentence, leaving it open to multiple interpretations.

A scribe sits, painstakingly and lovingly writing each letter with a quill dipped in ink, never deviating from its shape. Respect for God’s word is beyond reproach. The scribe’s work, avodah, which also means “service,” is among the most treasured work, approached with deepest humility.

“And God said” are words that reverberate at the beginning of Torah. Using our treasured language, God creates everything in existence through speech. In fact, the word “Abracadabra” comes from the Hebrew Abra k’Dabra, “I create as I speak.” The power of each letter and its energetic flow emanate throughout existence. As we chant each week, they vibrate notes of Divine music.

On Simchat Torah, we enliven our senses.

No matter what denomination, or even the unaffiliated Jew, every member of the community equally shares in Torah and its celebration. The Chassidic movement, responding to the growing emphasis on the intellect, taught that every Jew, simple or uneducated, could feel connected to Torah and God. Dancing and passing Torah to the person next to you is a shared experience, creating unity. It sends a democratic message that every Jew has access to God’s words. Even at Sinai, every human being present heard it: male and female, young and old, leader and follower. The words and teachings from God, transmitted through Moses, crosses boundaries, status, denominations and generations. Torah is as viable and meaningful today as it was at its inception.

Torah says, “Male and female, He created them.” If we are created in the image of the Holy One, then God must be male and female as well. “Let us create the human in ‘our’ image.” Torah, the physical manifestation of God, represents Shekhinah, the feminine in-dwelling of God. She is the Bride and the Queen, held and joined in dance. She is a flowing well, a spirit of enlightenment, a book of knowledge and a Tree of Life. 

The 16th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria introduced the seven circuits (hakafot). The number seven represents completion, particularly God’s creation of the world. We are reminded of the ritual in the wedding ceremony when the bride circles the groom seven times, creating a boundary around her spouse. The modern custom is for the bride to circle the groom three times, then vice versa, with both joining hands and circling together for the seventh. So when we embrace Torah, dancing and circling seven times, we are the bride and groom, creating a relationship committed to engaging and spending the next year together, expanding our minds and spirits.

Like all spiritual experiences in Judaism, the lessons from Torah are not removed from our lives. It is in the daily activities at home, work or in the marketplace where we enact the values and ethics we learn studying Torah. In the story of the student asked what it was like to be in the presence of his great teacher, he responds, “I witnessed holiness when I watched him tie his shoes,” the most simple of acts.

On Simchat Torah, we enliven our senses. We listen to, see, speak of and most importantly touch the Torah. It is the only time we read it at night. Unlike Shavuot, when we spend the night studying Torah, now we dance with it in celebration. Holding and dancing with Torah, a bright light is cast into the darkness, reinforcing the image of Torah as “or” (first letter aleph), a light that will infuse us so we, too, can be a transmitter of light into the world of its principles. 

The word “or” with an ayin means “skin,” and the Torah scroll is made of animal skin. Zohar teaches when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, She/He covers them with “Kotnot Or,” garments of skin, eclipsing their original skin of spiritual light. This light — the black fire of the letters on the white fire of the scroll — “enlightens” us with its deep wisdom and mitzvot, pathways to bring blessings and holiness into our lives. 

It is the custom for children to carry and wave flags on Simchat Torah. I have a vivid memory of marching as a young child around a room in a newly formed synagogue in Toronto, a congregation of Holocaust survivors laughing with joy, celebrating their new lives as they held their treasured Torah. It was an unusual sight mostly because they struggled to find joy after their horrific experiences. Yet, this was a moment of great gratitude, not just for their lives but in watching their children with the promise of tomorrow, something they never thought they would experience again. Holding Torah, after watching so many burned in the flames of hatred, they understood nothing could destroy its light and its teachings.

I recently read a story of a small Torah that was hidden during the Holocaust in under a bunk in a barrack. Arnold Steiner shared that single Simchat Torah. With hushed voices, the Jews made circles and kissed the Torah, which later found its way to Israel to the Gerer synagogue in B’nai B’rak.

We grieve when we read Eikhah (Lamentations), which paints the picture of the flames engulfing Jerusalem and the Holy Temple amid blood-stained streets. Without the altar, the sacrificial system ended. It was the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who smuggled the Torah in a coffin out of the city and set Judaism on a course where Torah became its center. In the middle of what felt like the apocalypse, the genius and the faith of this man assured our future. Prayer would replace the offerings; Torah would nurture and guide “our life and the length of our days.” The sweet aroma of the smoke would turn into the sounds of sages teaching and even arguing, a fundamental talmudic principle reflecting the incredible value that each voice and unique perspective has meaning and value.

The image of Torah as a Tree of Life, Etz Chayyim, comes from the Garden of Eden story. The sages describe studying Torah as entering an orchard called PARDES. It becomes an acronym for the process of studying and understanding the text. Each of the consonants represents a way into the garden of flowering wisdom. “P” is for “peshat,” the simple, straightforward reading, the literal understanding, the story line. “R” is for “remez,” which means a hint or a clue, using the lens of grammar, unusual word formations or apparent mistakes that demand closer attention. “D” is for “derash,” which means to search out, inquire and interpret. Text is analyzed as metaphors or allusions to a deeper, broader meaning — or even a psycho-spiritual interpretation. “S” is for “sod,” which means secret; this applies to the mystic and kabbalistic interpretations of which the Book of Zohar (radiance) is par excellence. Written in the 13th century, Zohar illuminates in imaginative language, using erotic and fantastical images often beyond the average person’s comprehension. This deepest and most innovative interpretation generally needs a master of this genre to help guide its exposition. Beyond the literal reading, multiple doorways of interpretation abound, including contemporary approaches such as drama, poetry and art.

Seeing that much is hidden in the text, the sages taught, “Turn it, over and over, for everything is in it” and “Torah is learned through seventy faces or facets of the Holy One.” Two thousand years later, 70 has grown exponentially to hundreds of interpretations. Every generation adds to the voluminous library of commentary while standing on the shoulders of sages who laid the foundation. “Who is wise, one who learns from everyone.” We must see ourselves as lifelong learners. Simchat Torah is an opportunity to recommit to this endeavor.

A custom associated with Simchat Torah is chanting Torah during both evening and morning services, with the most important parts being the concluding verses from one Torah by Chatan Torah (Groom of Torah) and beginning verses from a second Torah by Kalah Torah (Bride of Torah). Our love for God’s words moves us to not just end but begin again. Both services include seven circuits of singing and dancing. A beautiful midrash describes the Torah wanting to dance by itself, but because it doesn’t have feet, we must be its vehicle.

No matter what denomination, or even the unaffiliated Jew, every member of the community equally shares in Torah and its celebration.

Torah describes Moses throwing the tablets God made when he sees Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. Midrash describes the tablets as “flying” out of his arms upon seeing the circuits of idolatry. It is on Yom Kippur that Moses returns with a second set, along with God’s forgiveness. Simchat Torah is our making refuah, a healing, for the trauma of the broken tablets. Each year, we reaffirm our desire to maintain Torah as pivotal to our ethical and spiritual growth.

Simchat Torah ritualizes our return to reading about the events and personalities that create a pathway to our own lives, understanding and identifying on an intellectual, emotional and physical level. When Abraham lifts a knife over his only son, Isaac, who is bound on the altar, we physically shudder. When Joseph’s brothers sell him to a caravan of men going to Egypt, it sends shivers up our spine as we think of such hatred between siblings. When Jacob wrestles with a man who literally grabs a chunk of his groin, leaving him limping the rest of his life, I identify with those feelings of vulnerability and fragility at times of physical difficulty, calling it my “Jacob” moment. When Sarah, at the age of 90, receives the gift of pregnancy, we have a metaphor for our life that no matter how old we are, we can “bear fruit in old age.”

When we face aging, it may be comforting to know we can birth new parts of ourselves, as I did by becoming ordained in my late 60s. Each of the personalities and their stories are teachable moments, ways to rethink our lives and understand our own journey. Torah is a constant source of wisdom, reinforcement and hope. Simchat Torah teaches children to value the sweetness of learning and teaches adults there is no end to the pearls we might find in the treasure chest called Torah.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot move us closer to our pure souls and the Divine presence, culminating in an embodied experience of God’s words on Simchat Torah.

It is the ultimate celebratory experience with the Etz Chayyim, the Tree of Life, held and treasured in the here and now. “She is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to Her.” Our identity strengthens and our roots deepen, like a tree searching for water beneath the surface. Moving into the month of Cheshvan, which is colder and darker days without any holidays, becomes a time for more silence and deep study.

The hidden secret is that the last letter of Torah is a “lamed” and the first letter of Torah is a “bet/vet.” Longing to be together, they join, spelling the word “leyv,” which means “heart.” As the liturgy teaches, “Torah is the love God has for us,” “Ahavat olam … Torah uv’mitzvot otanu limad’tah.”

Torah is a pump, pulsating life and energetic vibrations through each letter and word. We reverberate with holiness from the personal insights, psycho-spiritual wisdom and deeper understanding of our ancestors and their journeys. May you continue to engage, search and even argue with the Holy One, and if this is a new path, know it is never too late to start.

Men rise and clap their hands,
Torah emerges as we all stand.
The groom announces he’ll chant the end,
Moses dies but Torah we will not suspend.
Women stand and shout with joy,
Embracing the Torah, like a baby girl or boy.
The bride is ready to continue the tradition,
Beginning anew, the story of Creation.

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins is co-spiritual leaders with her husband, Rabbi Stephen Robbins, of N’vay Shalom, expandedspirit.org.

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