Keshet Starr

The Strangest Simchas Torah

My first inkling that something is going on comes Shabbos morning, when I go to shul. “There’s something going on in Israel,” a friend tells me quietly, a few feet away from where our children play. “And it’s bad.”

The reports trickle in slowly — There are 40 dead, then 70, then 150. Kidnappings, especially of women. 

My friend runs into a secular Israeli out walking. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” he says, “But Israel is at war.”

We are only hours into a two-day holiday, so it is nearly impossible to access information. A security guard shares news from his phone; I hear about it secondhand hours later. Another friend has a hard-copy newspaper delivered; it travels from hand to hand in the afternoon. 

Confusingly, in the middle of this, comes Simchas Torah. This is not just any holiday — it’s the holiday of fun, of dancing and candy and pure, unadulterated joy. It feels completely incongruous on a day like today, even wrong. How can we dance where Israel is under literal fire? How can we celebrate when everything is falling apart? 

And then, as I stand outside the dancing circles, hesitating, it hits me — of course we are dancing. We Jews have been dancing on Simchas Torah for thousands of years, and that history has not been kind to us. We have danced through Crusades and Inquisitions, through expulsions and pogroms. There are stories of inmates dancing in concentration camps, and of survivors celebrating in DP camps, twirling the few remaining children like Torah scrolls. The Torah we celebrate each year with such enthusiasm has been dearly bought — and still we dance.

As I sort my thoughts, something I read years ago rises back up. Rabbi Sacks, zt”l  writes movingly about the distinction between happiness and joy: 

When the world is in a state of order, when there is peace 

and good governance and accountability. . . one can 

speak of happiness as a central value. What, though, 

survives when none of these preconditions are met?. . . . 

The answer is simcha, joy. For joy does not involve, as does 

happiness, a judgment about life as a whole. Joy lives in the 

moment. It asks no questions about tomorrow. 

Simchas Torah is a holiday of joy, not of happiness. It asks us not only to show up when life is wonderful, but even when it is the opposite. It demands our joy. 

And so, we danced. We danced knowing that our brothers and sisters were in danger, and that terrible news awaited us on our phones and computers after the holiday ended — though we couldn’t yet understand how terrible. We danced for our friends and colleagues and uncles and cousins across the world, holed up in shelters, fearful and anxious. We danced for all of the people who woke that morning and dressed, in jeans or workout clothes or holiday finery, not knowing that their time was running short, sand hurtling through an hourglass. We danced for all of the Jews that couldn’t dance that day, and for the ones that never would again. 

In another year’s time, after the earth completes its rotation around the sun, we will again be celebrating Simchas Torah. I have no idea what this year will bring, and what it will cost us. But I do know that no matter what, we will find a way to dance. 

About the Author
Keshet Starr is the Executive Director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), the only nonprofit organization addressing the agunah (Jewish divorce refusal) crisis on a case-by-case basis worldwide. At ORA, Keshet oversees advocacy, early intervention, and educational initiatives designed to assist individuals seeking a Jewish divorce, and advocates for the elimination of abuse in the Jewish divorce process. Keshet has written for outlets such as the Times of Israel, The Forward, Haaretz, and academic publications, and frequently presents on issues related to Jewish divorce, domestic abuse, and the intersection between civil and religious divorce processes. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Keshet lives in central New Jersey with her husband and three young children.
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