Embracing Unity, Not Uniformity

The High Holiday season just ended. A spiritual, emotional and communal journey through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot culminated in the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah, though it is so close to the holiday of Sukkot on the calendar, is actually a separate holiday and has become part of the celebrations of Shemini Atzeret. On Shemini Atzeret we put down the lulav and etrog, many of us step back into our homes from our sukkot (huts) and we focus in on one crucial area: Our relationship to God.

The great medieval commentator on Torah, Rashi, quotes the Midrash in explaining the reason for one last holiday of the season. Why is it not enough to conclude the season with the last day of Sukkot? Why one more holiday? Rashi offers the following:

This is analogous to a king who invited his children to feast with him for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: “My children! Please, stay with me just one more day; it is difficult for me to part with you!” (Rashi on Leviticus 23:26)

In the rabbinic imagination, God experiences angst about the departure of this special time in the year. God’s children, all of us, will take leave of this focused holy season and rejoin the normal routines of work and leisure. God begs of us to stay just for one more day and thus Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, are born.

On Simchat Torah Jews throughout the world take hold of the most precious physical manifestation of our faith, our Torah scrolls, and dance with them. In joyous song we join hands with one another and celebrate the gift of Torah and the Giver of that Torah. As we dance around in a circle the faces of our neighbors, friends and family become blurred in the action of the moment. How each person understands her or his Judaism, how she or he connects to God and to tradition becomes secondary to the collective unity we experience surrounding our collective Torah. Who we are on Simchat Torah are members of the same family, bound up together in a collective destiny and a shared fate. What we each believe and how we individually practice is lost in that brief spark of time that Simchat Torah provides us.

This is not to say that difference is not important. Indeed, how we define ourselves and our individual practices are incredibly significant. However, Simchat Torah affords us the opportunity to balance that individuation with a glimpse of unity.

There is a classic question that is asked about the nature of existence: How could it be that a God defined by Oneness, first and foremost, created so much breathtaking diversity? Would it not follow that the One God would only create one type of person, one type of identity and one type of self-expression? One suggested resolution to this philosophical quandary is that God’s Oneness is not synonymous with sameness. There exists a paradox that out of Oneness comes difference and that, in fact, it is through the remarkable diversity that is in the human family that we can come to glimpse the ultimate Oneness of the Divine. Simchat Torah, with its blurred dancing rejoicing over the ultimate gift the One God bestowed to a multifaceted people, is a window into that Divine Oneness. It is a small break in the veil that separates us from understanding God’s infinite wisdom.

How do we take that glimpse afforded to us on Simchat Torah into the rest of the year? How do we help it influence the way we are as people and as members of the Jewish community? I believe we do so by elevating unity and not uniformity. We must find the threads that bind us together even while honoring and valuing the differences that exist amongst us. We must be able to look at each other, even in the moments of sharp disagreement, and perhaps especially in those moments, as members of the same family and same people. A Jewish people that can raise up unity without imposing uniformity can carry forward the profundity and beauty of Simchat Torah, of a people dancing around a single Torah, throughout the entire year.

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Must-Know Sukkot Words and Phrases

Key terms for the holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.