Saturday, October 6, 2007

Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah: Lingering Joy, Return of the Ordinary

Thursday we celebrated the end of the High Holy Day-Festival month as we marked Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Shemini Atzeret is the "eighth day of lingering," an additional festival day that is added to the already packed month of Holy Day observances that is Tishrei. According to Yitz Greenberg, this added day of rejoicing is added to Sukkot because G-d grows "pensive and nostalgic" since the next time all of Israel will gather is six months into the future at Pesach. I can imagine that in the days of Old Jerusalem, the people themselves grew pensive, knowing that winter was soon upon them, and after the high joy of Sukkot and the Hoshanah Rabba on the 7th day, during which the people took the lulavim and etrogim and marched seven times in circles, pleading, "Adoneinu Hoshia-ha!"--Our G-d, save us, please!--and after experiencing the high solemnity of the water pouring ceremony, wanted a last day to linger in the rare autumn sunshine, before the winter rains set in. Once those rains started, the mud would make it impossible to travel anywhere far.

In these times, Shemini Atzeret is also the Festival of Simchat Torah--Rejoicing in the Torah, that occurs when we finish reading the Torah with the last portion in the book of Devarim--Deuteronomy--and immediately begin again with "Breshit bara Elohim..."--"Once when G-d was creating the world..."

At the Simchat Torah evening service, we remove all of the Toratot (pl. for Torah Scrolls) from the Ark and have seven circuits of dancing with the Torah. Each circuit--called a ha-kafah--begins with the cantor and congregation chanting responsively:

Adoneinu, hoshia-nah!
G-d, save us, please!
Adoneinu, hatzlicha-na!
G-d, redeem us, please!
Aneinu, Aneinu b'yom koreinu!
Answer us, answer us on the day that we call to You!

Then the Toratot are passed from person to person, as we dance with them and rejoice in the gift of Torah. Every year, I tell myself that I will comport myself with the dignity of someone my age, and not cavort like a person ten years younger and thirty pounds lighter. And every year, when I am handed the Torah as the Klezmer band plays, I dance my heart out. There is something most beautiful in the sight of Jews still here, dancing with the Torah scrolls after all that has befallen us. This year was even more joyous for me because N., having become Bar Mitzvah, was called to a ha-kafah, and could hold the Torah scroll as he danced with it. In the past, he has often left the room because the noise and chaos became too much for him. This year, he participated fully because he had a part in the dancing. When the recent B'nei Mitzvah were called, we sang:

Od Avinu, od Avinu, od Avinu chai!
Our Father yet lives!
Am Yisrael chai!
The people Israel lives!

Needless to say I danced exuberantly with a forty pound Torah and felt muscles I never knew I had the next day. Oy. But it is always worth it. As Yitz Greenberg says:

"The rejoicing makes a statement. Whatever the law denies to Jews, whatever suffering the people have undergone for upholding the covenant cannot obscure the basic truth: The Torah affirms and enriches life."

Even though the next morning dawns as a full festival day, dancing with the Torah during the evening service always makes me feel that we have ended the fall Holy Day cycle, and come back to ordinary time. We spend the next day lingering peacefully with the autumn weather, enjoying a sense of fulfillment and transition to ordinary time that is quite welcome after the intensity of the High Holy Days and the wild joy of Sukkot, which is called "THE Festival."

We spent Thursday enjoying the mild autumn weather and went on a long walk in the national forest adjacent to our development, exploring pathways that we had not tried before. We noticed that the Scrub Oak and Aspen are turning, making patches of bright color among the evergreen Pinyon Pine, Juniper and, higher up, the Ponderosa. As our ancestors lingered in the weakening sun of mid-autumn, so do we, knowing that soon, soon winter will be upon us.

The past few days, we have spent time outdoors and time inside, catching our breaths and catching up with our lives in ordinary time. Today I spent the afternoon catching up on reading for my psychology class. Bruce winterized the coolers and is piecing out a section of the floor, glad to work on the floor after a "holy day hiatus."

On Friday, we will celebrate Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan--the new moon of Cheshvan. Some people call the coming month 'Mar-Cheshvan' --bitter Cheshvan--because it is the only month on the Hebrew calendar that has no other holidays except Shabbat. I think of it more as 'Cheshvan Menucha'--restful Cheshvan--because it is nice to look forward to some ordinary time before we need to celebrate another holiday.


Amie said...

Wow, dancing with the Torah sounds like a wonderful ceremony!

momof3feistykids said...

I love the way you weave nature appreciation into your rich faith traditions. It all seems to go together so seamlessly, and you write about it beautifully.