A Tale of Two (simchat) Torahs
We have just finished putting away all our holiday paraphernalia; the sukkah decorations, the collection of various types of ceramic pomegranates, our special New Year challah cover and our glass and silver honey pot…Another new year, another Simchat Torah is behind us.
And before looking forward to this very hope laden new year, I take a moment to look back, to catch my breath and to wonder, in utter amazement, how have we gotten here?
I sit outside in my backyard writing these words, my (surgical) mask is hung loosely around my neck. I didn’t even own a surgical mask last year; this year I have several boxes of masks, in various fabrics and styles and colors. How have we gotten here, to this reality?
Last year I experienced a very different, very special Simchat Torah. It excited me, it fulfilled my dreams of experiencing joy in the Torah and joy in the holiday. It was the first time in the 39 years since I came to Israel that I was an active participant instead of a passive observer. I felt that I had found my place, found the right shul for me for this very special holiday, and I asked my hosts to please allow me to join them the following (this) year.
How have we gotten here, to this reality? No one I know could have ever imagined the unbelievable changes in our lives, things that seemed like a poorly written science fiction script have turned into a global daily reality.
This Simchat Torah was radically different from every single Simchat Torah that I can remember, and I can remember at least 50 of them, including one very memorable one spent in Leningrad, in 1981 in the home of “refusenik” Jews. This year, the chag topped them all.
Simcha. Torah. Covid. Could they merge? Could they really form a festive reality? How have we gotten to this place?
Sukkot, my personal favorite holiday, is called “the time of our happiness” and we are commanded to rejoice in our holidays. Our new reality stripped away all our external experiences of happiness; we relegated ourselves to a holiday without family; without attractions; without nature hikes, without festivals and concerts and happenings and events. I gave a great deal of thought as to what God expected of us; we are commanded (as if such a thing is truly possible) to be happy and regulated to finding a new, uncharted way to achieve said happiness.
The commandment of the holiday is to sit in the sukkah. The sukkah is credited with providing all kinds of protection, both on a physical and on a spiritual plane. A woman “complained” on Facebook: How could she enjoy her sukkah when there were no guests in it? And I concluded that WE were the guests, in God’s sukkah. He wanted us to sit in His sukkah, under His protective wing, and enjoy the magnificent weather that He sent us.
So, we sat. And didn’t plan trips. And didn’t confirm plans with friends and relatives. And didn’t make reservations for events. It took us a day or so to really commit to the reality, but once accepted, we sat; we read, we rested, we enjoyed our sukkah. I always commented that we spent so long building and decorating our sukkah and then so little time actually sitting in it. This year things were very very different.
Simchat Torah is the culmination of a month of holidays. And it is considered to be the most fun. Even without all the exciting new customs I experienced at my friend’s shul a year ago, there are still a lot of fun components to the day. Every (other) year, we have a huge sit-down kiddush in the shul; we have tons of children and grandchildren called up under a huge canopy for a special “all the children” aliya. We have a catered meal for the congregation at night…. lots of socializing and connecting and fun.
But this year socializing has been replaced by social distancing. It is hard to drink a “le”chaim” while wearing a mask. Our shul has been long abandoned and the small street services are limited in their numbers. No dancing, no touching and even our beloved Torah scrolls were deemed too dangerous to be passed from one to another. How have we reached this point? How have we gotten to here?
How do we merge “simcha” and “Torah” once again?
I found that my focus and my concern was towards the saying of Yizkor. I was orphaned of both my parents within a 9-month period several years ago and still feel myself a newcomer to the Yizkor sayers. I know how important this was to my (nonreligious) mother and father. How they NEVER EVER missed an opportunity; it was very important to them to be in shul when Yizkor was said. This value has been imprinted on my soul and I worried that I wouldn’t find a place where I could honor their memories.
I found a street minyon. I davened and prayed, I heard the last portion of the Torah, immediately followed by a new beginning, a new Bereshit. I prayed even harder that this new begin be the beginning of restored worldwide health. And I was able to say Yizkor for my beloved parents, as they said for theirs for so many years.
I remind myself frequently that we have reached this place where we now exist because GOD Himself wants us to be right exactly where we are. It is easy to blame Trump, or Bibi, Litzman or Gamzu or whomever you feel is worthy of it, but they are all external manifestations of His plan. So God stripped us down to the bare basics; and for the most part, I found the change to be very enjoyable. I truly felt the mourning for the loss of The Temple as well as our temple, as we read the mournful prayers of Tisha b’Av on the pavement. On Passover, I enjoyed sitting in my back yard hearing Torah readings and the Hallel prayers from all corners of the neighborhood, totally embodying the phrase “the entire earth is filled with His glory”. And most recently, I enjoyed davening outside in the early morning calm of Yom Kippur. IT felt pure, simple, true, honest.
But now, Simcha? Simchat Torah? It was mostly calm, mostly quiet. I smiled to myself whenever I heard the sounds of a group of men singing holiday songs. How have we gotten to this point? This place of resignation, compliance and acceptance? God has brought us here. And just as He brought us to the desert, barren and deserted for 40 years, so he has brought us here, to a new reality, a different sort of holiday.
May we be blessed to see the simcha in our Torah, to feel it and to rejoice in it, together, no matter how far apart we may be.