My childhood memories of the festival of Simchat Torah center around a paper flag topped with a candy-apple and candy canes. I loved the joyous dancing and the candy was a real treat. Yet, I can’t remember anything of the ritual of the ending and beginning of the reading from the scroll and any prayers we recited long ago receded into the background.
After years of trying to hold onto all of ritual the elements – the evening prayers, the rituals of the ending and beginning, and the dancing and singing, I felt we needed a different focus. In keeping with other ritual innovations in my community in the last two years, I reimagined the experience. We started and ended with food – always appreciated! And with a room full of kids of all ages and adults, I led a brief guided meditation of evening prayers, sealed with a blessing, and closed in song. Then we got the music going and danced joyously. Moving all the chairs away for a full space, we took off. And as the energy flagged, we slowly switched into a different ritual mode – we unrolled an entire Torah scroll around the room, as silence fell and everyone cooperated in carefully and respectfully handling the scroll. The sense of awe was palpable.
I called two teens for the blessings, the honored roles of bridegrooms of Torah and new beginnings, followed by the briefest of readings from the ending and beginning of the scroll, and everyone was rapt in attention. Then the real fun began – “Stump the Rabbi” – a learning game envisioned by Jay, our spiritual life committee chair. I had suggested that we ask everyone to think of their favorite story or teaching in the Torah so we could find together them in the unrolled scroll. But Jay’s idea was that the community would ask me to find their favorite sections of the text within a 60 second time limit. They came ready and couldn’t wait for me to find their chosen quotes and stories. We lost track of time and I had to apologize that it was time to end when worried parents began to realize that it was time to get the kids home on that school-night. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in stopping. They were having too much fun.
I got stumped once – by a seventh grader who wanted me to read the story of Moses hitting the rock. I didn’t locate it fast enough – and he was delighted. But for all the stories that I did find and read, the joy of learning was just as strong. Everyone left with anticipation of next year’s Simchat Torah, and came back on Shabbat morning talking about the fun.
We didn’t have candy-apples or candy canes. But the pizza, apples and cookies were just fine. And the experience was a new generation’s joy – engaging, meaningful and memorable. How wonderful that it left us all waiting for more!
I don’t know how or when it happened. But somehow, in the not too distant past, the pinnacle of the Simchat Torah celebration moved from the Hakafot and Torah readings to a new, and visually-impressive, presentation — the unrolling of the Torah in its entirety.
More and more congregations have embraced it and I find it both perplexing and troubling.
Traditionally, the Torah is treated as if it is nearly alive. It is NOT alive, but we accord her a great deal of respect. We do not touch the parchment as the oils from our hands will rub away the ink and render it unusable. When we open the scroll for a reading, we open it not more than three columns in order to maintain some semblance of modesty. If we are moving the Torah from one location to another, we would not place her in the trunk. Rather, the scroll would ride inside the car. Nor would we leave the Torah in the car overnight. If a Torah is rendered unusable, we bury her. We stand when the Torah is removed from the ark (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3). And, God-forbid, should the Torah should be dropped, the one who dropped her is required to fast. As are those who have witnessed the incident (Orach Chayim 3:3).
Unrolling a Torah in its entirety seems to defy our customary ways of handling the scroll.
What is troubling is that there are long-standing rituals associated with Simchat Torah. The Shulkhan Arukh, not to mention a number of Sages, provide clear instructions regarding the ways in which we read the scrolls on this festival. Why toss out the mandated practices only to replace them with something new?
Innovation can be a wonderful thing. It keeps stasis at bay. It seems to me, however, that unrolling the Torah is simply a gimmick to get folks interested in participating. When I read descriptions of this practice as “the highlight of the Simchat Torah experience,” I am saddened. Saddened that we have become so jaded that our traditions are perceived to be both uninspiring and antiquated. Saddened that we seek more thrilling, more “meaningful” rites. Perhaps that is what so compelling about Chabad. They are seen as delivering “the real thing” rather than re-branding it or re-imagining it. How is it, then that instead of seeming outdated, the ways in which they practice their Judaism are seen as “authentic”?
*this post appeared on RJ.org in 2010. The discussion that followed in the comments are worth a read.