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Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner: Why Simchat Torah is an affair of the heart

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner looks at what lies behind the wedding-like celebrations that conclude the autumn festivals in this piece which originally appeared in the JC.

At Simchat Torah, death and life are linked by just two beats of the heart. Our Torah reading cycle reaches its final episode, the death of Moses. A single heartbeat later, we are once again “In the beginning”, as we restart the cycle, affirming life through Bereshit, the Creation of the world.

This beating of the heart is the seam that welds together the end and the beginning: our tradition points out that the final letter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is lamed and the first letter of Bereshit (Genesis) is bet, which in Hebrew together spell lev, meaning heart.

We celebrate the Torah cycle by re-enacting circles in our customary rituals. We carry the Torah, dancing and singing, circling our synagogues seven times in hakafot, processions. Our circling is reminiscent of the seven circles at a wedding, the joining together of a couple which continues the work of Creation, completed in seven days.

The symbols of Simchat Torah are direct and free of distraction. We cast aside the intense inward focus of the High Holy Days. Our focus is joy, fasting rescinding into the past. We also leave behind the trappings of Succot that were our companions for a week — no lulav, no fragrant etrog.

We suspend the yearning for Zion and lavish no attention on the Land of Israel. Our focus is unashamedly narrow: only one subject, only one symbol — arteries scribed in black ink on parchment, forming our Torah.

The emphatic change of mood contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Days of Repentance and with the sense of vulnerability engendered by sitting in makeshift shacks during Succot. It is a moment of release: we face the magnificence of taking all the Torah scrolls out of the ark at the same time, the parading of the Torah scrolls to sing and dance with them.

Simchat Torah affirms that our introspection surrounding the Days of Repentance leads us to joy rather than to melancholy. Sometimes we may need to draw on hidden resources of strength to be so upbeat and to dance and sing but this is the command: to be joyous.

Just as the Torah has a thousand faces, there are many and different communal practices in its celebration. The spectrum of minhagim, our customs, which different communities throughout the Jewish world have evolved is unparalleled in other times of the year — a wonderful example of how diversity and flexibility of minhagim is, and should be, accepted.

We parade our Torah scrolls, which are our real riches, and proudly place them on show. It is the Torah that is honoured, that is kissed, turned to, passed lovingly round. The rabbis and synagogue dignitaries mostly play second or third fiddle.

This year, I will have the privilege of leading services in Glasgow where we will fully unfurl a Torah scroll and encircle the room with it. As we encircle the room, we are also encircled by the Torah, enveloped in it and we share the responsibility of holding it up carefully, very carefully.

In some communities congregants are encouraged to take a stroll along the Torah and find their bat or barmitzvah portions. “Hafoch ba ve’hafoch ba”, delve into the Torah and delve again, we are told in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, for everything is in it. Simchat Torah inspires a closeness to Torah that should last the whole year.

Whose closeness to the Torah? Simchat Torah has frequently been a focal point for discussions on the status of women in congregations. Can women carry the Torah or not? Should women read from the Torah — whether in separate women’s minyanim or as part of the main congregation? As a Reform rabbi, this is the time when I see and hope to inspire transformations which follow from women having their first exhilarating experience of direct contact with a Torah scroll.

The interwoven moment of endings and beginnings, the heartbeat between death and life ends this period of the year and shoves us forward: we may have looked inwards, repented, made our peace with ourselves and with our own understanding of our Creator, but that is not enough.

Moses’s journey may have ended just short of entering the Promised Land but the shove towards creation and re-creation (not recreation) means that we cannot rest. We have prayed, fasted, sung, but that isn’t it. We aren’t let off the hook. Let us celebrate: our circle is still turning.

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