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Dancing with the Torah

Once, at a crowded Simchat Torah celebration, a rabbi took the Torah and danced out of the synagogue and into the street. The huge crowd followed the rabbi and the Torah, dancing right behind them like a giant, zigzagging snake, up and down the street. The street was packed bumper to bumper with cars, which couldn’t move because of the crowds. The rabbi, carrying the Torah high up in the air for everyone to see, jumped up on the hood of a parked car, and then started dancing from car to car, jumping from hood to hood, on the roofs, across the car trunks. From where a child holding onto his dad was standing in the crowd that followed the rabbi, it looked like the rabbi was dancing in thin air. People sang and danced and clapped their hands. Rebecca loved to hear her father tell the story of the rabbi who danced on air with the Torah.

Rebecca and her family belonged to a small synagogue. They loved to celebrate Simchat Torah. Everyone sang and danced enthusiastically while the grownups carried the Torahs. Sometimes, if the night wasn’t too cold, they took the Torahs outside, onto the lawn in front of the synagogue. Cars driving by would honk their horns. Her father, who had been the little child in the crowd, often told her about the rabbi who appeared to dance in the air. She would have loved to see it, to do it even, but she would have been afraid. Rebecca couldn’t imagine their rabbi or anybody ever jumping up on a car while holding a Torah. What if they fell and dropped it?

Simchat Torah is the holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah. Jews are always reading the Torah, every week, year after year, generation after generation. During the Simchat Torah celebration, we Jews read the last portion of the Torah and then immediately start again at the beginning. In this way, we never really finish because when we get to the end, we start all over. And each time we read the Torah, we find something new and important to our lives in it.

Rebecca loved Simchat Torah, especially the dancing and singing. It was more fun, she felt, than Sukkoth with its Sukkah, Passover and its Seder, Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey and sound of the shofar, Purim with its costumes and sweets, and even Chanukah with its lights and presents. This year, however, she felt a little nervous as Simchat Torah approached.

The previous spring Rebecca had turned 13 years old and had celebrated her bat mitzvah. She read from the Torah, chanted the Haftarah, and led half the entire service. Afterward, she had a party with her family and friends. It was a great time. But now, she would be expected to carry a Torah during a Hakkafah, a procession of Torahs, because she was considered an adult, and she was quite large and strong for her age.

There are seven Hakkafot during the Simchat Torah celebration. For each one, someone would take a Torah and lead a group of dancers. Her small congregation had 14 Torahs, some bigger, some smaller. Unless you were a child or were too old or sick to carry a Torah, everyone took a turn. Some people had more than one turn. She felt that people expected her to carry a Torah and she really wanted to, but she was a little afraid.

“You better eat your Wheaties if you’re going to be strong enough to carry a Torah on Simchat Torah,” her big brother said one morning at breakfast during Sukkot. “If you drop it, everyone in the congregation will have to fast for 40 days, and they’ll all be mad at you.”

“Nobody could fast for 40 days. They’d die. You’re lying,” she answered. But still, Rebecca was worried that she might drop a Torah. She had heard that 40-day thing before. The woman who led Junior Congregation had explained that there were other ways the congregation could show it was sorry for dropping the Torah, but she still never wanted to be the one to drop a Torah.

Rebecca had never carried and danced with a big Torah. They used a small Torah in Junior Congregation, which she carried all the time. But the Torahs in the Aron Kodesh in the grownup up service were much, much bigger.

In the years before her bat mitzvah, her dad and her mom and her big brother had taken turns carrying a Torah in a hakkafah. When she was a little child, she would hold onto her dad’s tallit or her mom’s skirt and be pulled along by them as they danced and sang and spun around. Sometimes she would get all tangled in her dad’s big tallit. Once, he held her in his arms just like he held the Torah. “You know, you are just about the size and weight of a Torah,” he told her, “but the Torah doesn’t wiggle and squirm.” They both laughed.

Now Rebecca knew she would be expected to carry a Torah in a hakkafah, and she was afraid she might drop it. She mentioned her fears to her mom, but she didn’t want to make a big thing of it. “They will give you one of the smaller Torahs, and there will be lots of people around you so you’ll have plenty of help if you need it. But nobody will make you carry a Torah if you don’t want to,” her mom explained. Rebecca really, really did want to carry a Torah in a hakkafah. She was just a little nervous.

Like all Jewish holidays, Simchat Torah starts the night before. Rebecca’s congregation does the hakkafot that night and the next day, but it is the night service when the dancing gets most enthusiastic.

The night of Simchat Torah was clear, dry, and cool. “It’s a perfect night for hakkafot,” observed her dad as the family left for the synagogue. “I guess you’ll be carrying a Torah this year,” he added, nodding in Rebecca’s direction.

“Maybe. I’m not sure,” Rebecca replied, very quietly.

“What’s the matter? You love Simchat Torah. You know more songs and dances than anybody,” her dad continued.

“She’s chicken,” her brother chimed in. “She’s afraid she’ll drop the Torah, and she probably will.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say, and it’s not even true. I have never in my life seen anybody ever drop a Torah, not ever. I have seen old people, sick people, frail people—all sorts of people—carry the Torah and no one has ever dropped it. If Rebecca decides to carry a Torah, she won’t drop it either,” her dad said, reassuringly. Rebecca wasn’t so sure.

By the time her family arrived, the synagogue was already crowded. All Rebecca’s friends were there. It wasn’t long before the Aron Kodesh was opened and the rabbi and cantor started taking all the Torahs out of the ark. They passed them first to the leaders of the congregation. They paraded around the synagogue. People chanted Torah Torah, Oseh Shalom, and song after song. Everybody sang, clapped, and danced in circles around each Torah.

With the second hakkafah, the rabbi and cantor started handing the Torahs to any adult in the congregation. By the third and fourth hakkafot, the rabbi and cantor had each offered a Torah to Rebecca. She politely declined each time.

By the fifth and sixth hakkafot, the crowd of dancers had pushed beyond the sanctuary. People were dancing with Torahs in the hallways. Some of her friends had already carried the Torah but still Rebecca declined. “It’s great!” one of her friends insisted. Maybe she really was chicken, Rebecca thought. The songs grew louder, the dancers went faster and faster. Sometimes two or three Torah carriers would join up, raising their Torahs high as people clapped and sang and gathered around them.

“This is your last chance, chicken. I’ve already had two hakkafot. Want me to take yours too?” said her brother, as the rabbi and cantor passed out Torahs for the seventh and final hakkafah. The rabbi held one out to Rebecca. She hesitated.

The rabbi smiled at her, reassuringly. “Please, take it. It won’t bite you,” he said quietly, confidently. Her arms felt weak, but she reached out and took the Torah. She was surprised. It didn’t feel so heavy, and it didn’t squirm. Rebecca rested it against her shoulder. She put one arm securely underneath it. She wrapped the other around it. She could feel energy pulsing through her body.

Rebecca felt the surge of the crowd as she danced down the aisle of the sanctuary and out into the lobby. All around her were Torahs, people, singing, clapping. Everything seemed in motion. Suddenly, she saw the big double doors to the outside. Holding her Torah high she danced to the doors. The crowd pushed them open and everyone streamed outside behind her. The night was cool and clear. A million stars twinkled in the sky.

Dancing with the Torah under the stars and surrounded by her community, Rebecca suddenly felt like she was Miriam, dancing with her timbrel on the shore of the Red Sea as the Israelites surged across. With the Torah, seemingly as light as a feather in her arms, she danced and sang and twirled. She imagined herself at Mt. Sinai celebrating the gift of the Ten Commandments. In the next moment, she felt she was entering the Promised Land with Joshua, at the head of the Israelites. She saw herself marching alongside Deborah, leading the Israelites against Sisera. Then she was standing with King Solomon dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem.

Other Torah carriers joined her as they danced across the lawn and around the trees. The crowd streamed around them. Among the crowd Rebecca imagined she could see Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Aaron–all the Jews who live forever in the Torah. They were all there, dancing with her. Rebecca could have danced on and on without stopping, and she might have until her father tapped her and motioned her and the others to head inside the synagogue.

All the scrolls except one were returned to the ark. The rabbi took the last scroll and finished the service. The Simchat Torah service ended, although to Rebecca it seemed as if something new had just begun. She felt fresh, energized, and excited. She had carried a Torah like a grownup and led a hakkafah by herself, as Jews had done all through the ages. She now felt as one of them, that she had truly joined them. Dancing with the Torah, Rebecca felt for the first time that it really was hers, that she was a part of the Torah, passing it from generation to generation, dor v’dor, forever and ever.