For the first time, I celebrated Simchat Torah — on the horrifying Shabbat of October 7. The observance framed my day with services at Chabad of Bedford, NY.
It joined a list of indelible days that mark my long journey into Judaism and Jewish practice. Earlier milestones:
- First High Holiday services, 1974 at Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas
- First seder, 1980 in Mill Basin, Brooklyn
- First time to wear a tallis, 1981 at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, W. 86th Street in Manhattan
- First trip to Israel, June 1982
I also remember my first shiva call, along with the first time to say kaddish on my parents’ yahrtzeits and include them in a yitzkor book.
And now the list expands at Simchat Torah as I took my turn to read during the introductory Ata Horeta prayers, then carried a Torah scroll as participants circled the bimah and danced in a circle (Hakafot, a new word and concept for me).
The day began with the first reports of the Hamas onslaught, which figured into discussions at Chabad’s morning service. Our rabbi quoted a passage from the Zohar: “Weeping is lodged in one side of my heart, and joy is lodged in the other.”
That evening I returned for my first Simchat Torah, something I had overlooked for decades of shul-going. I can’t explain my lack of involvement; High Holiday burnout, unfamiliarity with the celebration, poor timing during the work week? In any case, I decided the time had come to change that on this terrible day, to sing and dance with my fellow Jews and the Torah.
The observance took on an eerie feel when I arrived at the shul on a drizzly Saturday night. The interior looked dark, although cars were in the parking lot. Through the windows I could see flickering lights and shadowy outlines of some people. A security guard, barely visible in the gloom, told me the power had gone out that afternoon, during a day of pounding rain, and directed me to the side entrance.
This was my introduction to Hakafot in Darkness.
Inside I saw food tables set up, and the rabbi and congregants around a table getting in the mood, with songs. The only light came from tall candles on some tables in the sanctuary. The rabbi mesmerized us with a story about a celebration of Simchat Torah by yeshiva students in a concentration camp and the bittersweet nature of laughter and tears in this moment. I couldn’t read the Hakafot booklet until somebody moved the candles to the tables where we were sitting. That gave enough light for me to squint and read the Ata Horeta passages that came to me. The first one I read was:
May the Lord our God be with us as He was with our fathers; may He not forsake us nor abandon us.
The second that came my way was:
It will be said on that day: Behold, this is our God in whom we put our hope that He will deliver us; this is the Lord for whom we hoped, let us rejoice and delight in His deliverance.
The Simchat Torah experience wove together threads of my Jewish experiences. I’ve held the Torah many times during services, and I’ve always enjoyed jumping around in circle dances at weddings and bar and bat mitzvot celebrations. A few days ago, I circled the bimah with my lulav and esrog for Sukkot, a great physical and spiritual sensation of movement and observance in a seasonal setting. Indeed, I’ve read descriptions of Sukkot as the Jewish rain dance, which, given the day’s downpour, worked well.
The act of carrying the Torah during Simchat Torah, on this fateful day, integrated these strands of Jewish experience. I felt a connection to my fellow Jews at Chabad of Bedford, to the embattled Jews of Israel and the generations going back to Mt. Sinai.
I’ll always remember October 7 as the night of the Hakafot in darkness, as if we had blackout curtains hung for safety. We met in the darkness of night, in the darkness of violence against Israel. Still, we defied the physical and spiritual gloom when we lit candles and said prayers and danced with the Torah.
That is the ageless Jewish response. On Monday night the congregation took the next step with a solidarity gathering at the shul.