Hefsiba “Jen” Cohen
Special to Valley News
One of my fondest memories is the time I twirled the evening away with my favorite dance partner. We were in a festive dance procession, and my dance partner was regally dressed in embroidered velvet, boasting a vintage silver pendant and a filigree crown bedecked with bells that tinkled gently with each movement. While I am not a very good dancer, no toes were stepped on because my partner was actually a sacred antique scroll, and the night was Simchat Torah.
It was like dancing with a sovereign. Singing voices and the noise of celebration around me seemed to fade away as I closed my eyes and embraced the precious scroll, an armful of parchment and fabric warmed by those who held it before me. I remember how it felt both heavy and light at the same time. It was a sizable bundle, but I felt as though I could dance with it all night. The scroll of sacred precepts and its stories – some shocking, others heart-warming – all mingled into that beautiful moment of joy and appreciation. These precepts that gave me knowledge, wisdom and much of my identity was all here in my arms, swaying with me to the happy music and joy of the moment. I was reluctant to pass the Torah on to the next dancer, but when I finally handed it off, the feeling and memory lingered.
The Torah is central to Judaism but is hardly unique to it. Many faiths revere it, especially those of Abrahamic traditions. In Christianity, it is called the Pentateuch from “penta” meaning “five,” or it is described as the first five books of the Bible. In Arabic, it is called the “Tawrat,” and it is among Islam’s sacred books. While most cultures have regard for their traditional writings, few have an entire festival around them. Judaism takes its literary joy to the maximum, celebrating the Torah with a holiday of appreciation, known as Simchat Torah, literally “Rejoicing with/of the Torah.”
Torah scrolls are dressed in regal mantles and are usually kept in a special cabinet, or ark, but on this holiday, they are all taken out. Singing, dancing and rejoicing ensue as congregants take the scrolls and begin dancing, making a minimum of seven “hakafot,” or laps, around the synagogue. In some places, the doors are opened, and the dancing overflows outside into the street, where many celebrate their Jewish pride by dancing publicly with the Torah.
In the midst of COVID-19, this year finds people social distancing and seeking out creative ways to celebrate without passing the Torah and possible unwanted pathogens along with it around the synagogue. So, while dancing together is out this year, this holiday still promises joyous contemplation of the vital role that the Torah plays in Jewish life.
Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim or of any other tradition that values the Torah, take a moment to appreciate this divine gift and what it means to you. Go ahead and have your own moment of “simcha,” or gladness, and if all that joy happens to get you dancing, well, that’s even better.
Simchat Torah 2020 will begin before sundown Saturday, Oct. 10, and ends after sundown Sunday, Oct. 11.
Congregation B’nai Chaim is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit http://www.bnaichaim.com or https://www.facebook.com/CongregationBnaiChaim/.
Hefsiba Cohen is an adult educator and student rabbi.