Simchat Torah: Love at First Sight
On Simchat Torah, Mary Blye Howe celebrates what Torah means to her and the Jewish community.
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Each week during Shabbat services, I'll brush the Torah scroll with the fringes of my tallit (prayer shawl) as it is carried around the sanctuary, bringing its holiness back into the core of my being. I'll feel the familiar tingling of my spine as the ark is opened, and we bow and sing the aleinu prayer. As the men and women of my synagogue are called to the bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah scroll or read from the weekly Torah portion, I'll understand a little better the hard work they've put into doing so. As my friend Jack, a Holocaust survivor, waits each week for everyone to leave the chapel, climbs the steps, opens the ark, stands before the Torah scrolls, and quietly recites words I cannot hear, I'll allow his love of what that scroll represents to inflame my heart.
The history of the Jewish people is written there, with all of the tragedies, beauty, foibles, and, ultimately, triumphs. That is one of the reasons we dance: to celebrate the survival of a little group of nomads who clung to Torah regardless of their circumstances. On the 23rd of the Jewish month of Tishrei, I'll have the rare opportunity to watch as all of those scrolls are removed from the ark in my synagogue. We'll culminate our joy of Torah--Simchat Torah--through dance, food, wine, and music.
Before I converted to Judaism, I regarded Torah as the most boring part of the Bible. It seemed preoccupied with laws--many of them, such as animal sacrifices, inapplicable and irrelevant to my life. Each day, then I attempt to look at the history of Torah and its people, regard it in its cultural context, and then strive to find some fresh, modern application for my life. This is the Jewish approach to scripture that I'm still trying to wrap my head around.
In addition, I've learned that Judaism presents a different approach to Torah-one that allows us see these stories as metaphors, lessons, and inspirational material. We do not have to sacrifice our intellect to glean wisdom from the Torah.
Despite my difficulties in studying Torah, I have grown to love it for many reasons. For one thing, it portrays the history of the people of whom I've become a part. It's the basis of an astounding system of justice and a moral code, elaborated on beautifully and carefully in the oral law that followed it. Torah depicts people who are fallible, human, but full of humanity's poetry and longing for God, and love and concern for others. And while I love the wrangling and questions and endless digging by Jews as we study, it's my rabbis who make Torah interesting, accessible, and palatable to me.