We’ve celebrated Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the midst of Covid 19, which means a Jewish cycle of pilgrimage festivals is now complete. At this point, it’s fair to conclude that, Jewishly speaking, we can handle what lies ahead since we’ve already managed our Jewish touchstone holidays. With that said, I can’t help but approach Simchat Torah with some nostalgia of years gone by, dancing with Torah scrolls, singing and dancing for hours as a teenager, and sitting on my father’s shoulders as a child.
I remember getting excited about Simchat Torah in elementary school when we made Israeli flags with blue construction paper cut into strips. We had sticks and Elmer’s glue globbed onto paper in front of us while beautiful images of Stars of David danced in my head as I imagined my perfect Israeli flag. I dipped my fingers in the glue, tried to handle strips of construction paper that stuck to itself, my fingers, and my clothes. My construction paper strips had developed free will, and in the end, Picasso would have been proud of my interpretive flag. With my blue stained fingers, I could now choose an apple to stick onto the top of my flag, rush home, eat, change into my ‘shul’ clothes and go to shul for chaotic singing, dancing, and getting hoisted onto the shoulders of men as I waved my flag and watched the apple on top of it shoot across the room. Those were the days!
As I got older, I joined ‘the cause’ with my teenage friends to solicit and lobby for a Torah to be brought to the women’s section so we could celebrate and sing and dance with a Torah in our midst (on reflection, there were less flags and apples stuck on them at this stage). As a young woman, I remember participating in a celebration where ‘the cause’ had been embraced and advanced —now a Torah scroll was thrust into my arms and I was told to walk a circuit around the shul with it. I was shocked, I was honoured, I was intrigued and then within 3 minutes I was terrified. Never in my life had it ever occurred to me that TORAH SCROLLS ARE INCREDIBLY HEAVY!!
I remember learning that the parchment used for a Torah scroll is made from the skin of a goat, cattle or deer, and I was moved by the symbolic weaving of nature into Judaism. But I had never actually touched or held one. Perfect example of how flawed knowledge can be without the benefit of experience.
And so, there I am, holding my first Torah scroll, and trying to remind myself I am actually holding the embodiment of the history and values I hold so dear. I fought back the tiny voice in my head that kept telling me I’m holding a goat.
I began to walk around the shul with the other Torah people when I felt the scroll begin to slide downwards in my arms. Terror set in as I became more and more convinced I might drop it (oh, God, all those details I learned about what the whole congregation has to do if someone drops a Torah scroll —it’s not pleasant! No problem, I thought, everyone will be very forgiving of a woman dropping a Torah and the whole congregation repenting for it…no problem, I’ll just worry about a new identity when I get to Europe). With every step I took, the Torah inched lower. All I could think was that I am walking around carrying a goat and it wants to roam free. I managed to hang on as I completed the circuit and (gratefully) passed the Torah to the next person. At that point it was at my knees.
I have faced the hard reality that I am not a ‘Torah carrier’, it is not safe in my hands, I should not be trusted to hold it, please don’t pass me your Torah. But that is just my personal moment of understanding what the history of Simchat Torah has taught us on a national level.
There was an ancient tradition that lit torches and candles be carried on Simchat Torah, and used to escort anyone reading from the Torah during the celebrations. But, after a few hundred years, rabbis didn’t feel comfortable that it’s a Jewish holiday when we can’t ignite or extinguish fires, and yet people are carrying torches. Obviously, the answer was to give the lit torches to children who don’t have obligations to the commandments yet…it didn’t take long to see the flaw in that solution, and so torches were no longer used.
What’s even more interesting is how the tradition of putting the apples on the flags developed. Ancient texts tell us that we used to ‘lob’ apples at each other during Simchat Torah as a way to offer sweet treats that are associated with Torah. The intention was to gently, oh so gingerly, lob the apples so children could catch them or collect them later. Apparently, it got out of hand and we started pelting apples at each other. Dare I say, it became a form of apple dodgeball until some time in the 13th century when it was disallowed by the rabbinic authority of the time. Apples, if used, must now be secured to other things so no one gets any ideas of ‘holier than thou’ apple fights.
Simchat Torah is the holiday when we physically celebrate with our Torah scrolls and commit ourselves to new insights in our Torah studies. This year, we cannot gather in our large groups to sing and dance in close proximity or to pass Torah scrolls to each other. But that reality doesn’t change anything. The celebration of Torah continues and at these moments I rely on Jewish peoplehood. I am not a Torah carrier but I know many other Jews are. Many Jewish families have Torah scrolls of their own which will be used on Simchat Torah and danced with in their homes. I believe they include me in their intentions of joy and celebration as I intend to include others in my joy and celebration of Torah values.
Throughout Jewish history we have actively changed how we celebrate Simchat Torah when we realized safety was an issue. We no longer throw apples at each other when we gather and I, personally, will always ‘pass’ if a Torah is again offered for me to carry. It is the model of a Jewish holiday that shifts in its practice to accommodate the reality of the times.
Given everything we’ve been through in the last year, I think we can confidently say, ‘we got this one’.