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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Can You Be Normal on Simchat Torah?

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At a Chassidic minyan where I regularly hang out and sometimes teach, it’s Simchat Torah on every Shabbat and Yom Tov of the year. It all takes place in a karate dojo on Pico Boulevard. Which is a good thing — this minyan needs strong walls. 

I’m serious. Even Rosh Hashanah is Simchat Torah. The people are literally bouncing off the walls. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun. 

Sometimes I can’t help but to stand back to watch the singing, the dancing and the celebration, and wonder, “What are we happy about? Is this reason or madness? Is this normal?”

Of course it isn’t. And neither are the Jewish people. Or any of our holidays. And most of all, Simchat Torah is certainly not normal. 

Really, tell me if this is normative behavior: Once a year, Jews take out all the Torah scrolls in their places of worship and dance with them. In many places, they dance with them through the streets. 

Scrolls are books. Books are for reading. For understanding. For discussing. But dancing? Really? You call that normal?

It goes further. These are God’s books. Holy scrolls. Divine work to be treated solemnly, with respect and awe. How dare Jews dance with the divine!

“Grab a Torah and dance your heart out. Bounce off the walls and onto the street. Go nuts.”

On Passover night we ask, “Why is tonight different than every other night?” — just because we’re crunching on flat bread and dipping a veggie in salt water. On Simchat Torah, we’re hopping around in circles, dancing wildly with books — yet nobody asks a thing.

Why? Because everyone understands. This is a Jew: Someone who dances with God’s book.

“There is a crack in everything,” sung Leonard Cohen, the Jewish bard of Montreal. “That’s how the light gets in.”

No, it’s not the Jew that’s cracked. We’re OK, thank God. It’s the Torah. We see the cracks within. Through those cracks we see the light. And in that light we see our Beloved Above.

Sometimes the light gleams its brightest in the darkest bowels of hell. Like in the gas chamber of Auschwitz, where a group of young yeshiva boys, stripped of their clothes, knew full well what was coming next. 

There was one boy who sprang up and shouted: “Brothers! Today is the holiday of Simchat Torah. Before we die, let us celebrate Simchat Torah one last time.”

“We do not possess anything,” the boy continued. “We do not have clothes to cover us, nor a Torah scroll with which to dance. So let us dance with God Himself before we return our souls to Him.”

They danced with God in the gas chamber. 

We dance with Him in the synagogues and in the streets.

For that is a Jew: One who embraces the Author within the book, the Teacher within the teaching, God within a scroll. 

And it is with Him that we dance.

And yet, there is a point when the Jew could become lost — when the One wrapped up within the scroll is lost. 

When the Jew ceases to see beyond the black ink on parchment; when the Jew no longer feels a living covenant and an eternal bond with the infinite; when the Jew finds only curious legends, quaint stories and archaic laws, and dissects the Torah as though it were the frozen cadaver of some Ice-Age creature; then God is lost in translation, and the Jew is lost in a sea of oakwood pews.

“Why should the souvenirs of your Jewishness be solemnity, self-searching, starvation and proper decorum? Let it be circles of joy and explosions of song and dance.”

The shtiebel becomes a “house of worship,” the chazan becomes a cantor, Yom Tov davening becomes “The Festival Service,” and we just sit there watching, obeying commands to rise and be seated, sitting quietly through the rabbi’s sermon. We and the Torah become mutual strangers and the synagogue becomes a place where you meet God as one might meet one’s ex once a year over a coffee.

A Jew must be on fire. Torah is an all-consuming flame and the Jew is its red-hot coal. Cool down the coals and the flame disappears back to the place where all fire hides. All madness is lost, love gives way to reason, and the marriage is on the rocks. 

Please, fellow Jews, let us go beyond Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Why did we choose the most serious days of the year to reaffirm our Jewishness? If it’s going to be only one day a year, make it the most joyous day. Bring your family, your children, your friends for Simchat Torah. Grab a Torah and dance your heart out. Bounce off the walls and onto the street. Go nuts. 

Why should the souvenirs of your Jewishness be solemnity, self-searching, starvation and proper decorum? Let it be circles of joy and explosions of song and dance. Embrace fellow Jews you never saw before, jump and twirl with them in celebration of … what were we celebrating again? Oh yes! The plain and simple fact that, hey, you’re a Jew and there’s no stopping you!

You don’t have to know the words wrapped up in that scroll. And if you do, you don’t need to know whether you agree with them or not. You need only to dance with that scroll, as a married couple dances through life together despite their differences, despite all the unresolved baggage, despite all vicissitudes — because they are one, because their love cannot be extinguished, and so they cannot part. 

“You don’t have to know the words wrapped up in that scroll. And if you do, you don’t need to know whether you agree with them or not. You need only to dance with that scroll, as a married couple dances through life together.”

So too, you and your God are one, and the Torah is the marriage that binds you and has bound you for the journeys of 3,300 years. It is our birthright, this Torah, and as long as we can dance the birthright dance, the Torah will remember us. 

We need to change the way we pray, the way we teach our children, and the way we meet with our Beloved Above. We need to make the entire year a wild and joyous year of Simchat Torah. We need to dance our way to the liberation of our souls. We need to dance with a book.

Stop pretending. Jews are not normal.


Rabbi Tzvi Freeman is senior editor at Chabad.org and teaches at West Coast Rabbinical Seminary and The Happy Minyan. His published works include “Bringing Heaven Down to Earth” and “Wisdom to Heal the Earth,” to be released this fall.

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