As the men danced around below us, I had a lot of time to notice the people who were there – many are friends and neighbors of mine; children and grandchildren of people I know. The rabbi that is so loved in this community; a woman who regularly collects food for needy people. This one has a child who is ill; a boy with Down Syndrome who is so loved and cherished. This family has more boys than I can count; this one just had a daughter who got married. She’s a grandmother now. Her son just got engaged. That one there is married to her over there. And on and on – a community of people.
Around and around the dancing went as I pointed out different people and stories to my mother. The ages ranged from a newborn baby held in her mother’s arms, transferred to a young aunt, to the grandmother and back to the mother. The baby was at most a few weeks old, sleeping happily despite all the noise.
And back to the dancing – the boys playing on the side; several men sitting down to rest and talking (and they accuse women of gossiping too much!) and finally my eyes turned to two elderly men. One was the one I wrote about in A Torah and the second, not nearly as old, was in a wheelchair. Both were afforded so much respect; as the men danced around they were always so careful not to bump into these two older men.
When the older one walked with a cane, there was always someone who walked behind him; sometimes three men would join together and dance moving backwards, their faces towards the elderly man – almost clearing the path for him. When the other was pushed in his wheelchair, he was often given a Torah to hold and he too was often escorted by others. His voice was amazingly strong when he was given the honor of singing out the beginning phrases of one of the hakafot (circles) as he held the small Torah with the green velvet cover.
Later, after the dancing and the seven hakafot had been finished, each man was given a chance to say the blessing over the Torah on this special day that we end and begin again. Each Shabbat, the weekly Torah portion is divided into 7 sections. Seven men are called up each week to recite the blessing – one at a time. They recite the blessing, the section is read, they say another blessing, and then the next one is called up.
In a synagogue where there are 200 men – giving all 200 the opportunity to say a blessing could take many hours and so – they divide up into several areas – and still each section is read 10-15 times before each man finally gets his chance. For close to an hour, again and again, they began the section:
And this is the blessing wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.
The next to last chapter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) was read until almost all the men had been given the chance to bless the Torah. There were now two blessings left to be said – the one to say the blessing over the final section of the Torah, and the one to say the blessing over the beginning of the Torah.
One man came up and began a special prayer honoring the one who would be given the opportunity to say the blessing for the final section of the Torah for this year. Calling up the Hatan Torah (the one to receive the last blessing) is done with much fanfare, “Arise, arise, arise,” and then they call out his name Eliezer, son of….and come give honor to the God who is great and awesome.”
And then, four men raised a tallit, a prayer shall over a man as he was escorted to the central area where he would say the blessing and the final segment of the Torah would be read. Four men, perhaps even six, held the edges of the prayer shawl high above their heads to create a canopy…and under the canopy, in the center, about to be honored, was the man in the wheel chair who was rolled down the aisle as all stood and sang. His chair was gently lifted in reverse up to the raised platform where the Torah is read. Usually before saying the blessing, a man kisses the Torah.
Obviously, they realized that the sacred scroll was too high on the table and so two men carefully moved the Torah scroll to the very edge of the table so that the man in the wheelchair, with his hand wrapped in his prayer shawl, could reach out and kiss it before reciting the blessing.
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, who chose us from all the peoples and gave His Torah. Blessed are You God, the giver of the Torah.” His voice was so clear, so loud, so strong, it was hard to believe he was sitting in a wheelchair.
When he finished, another man read out the final section until the final word of the Torah – Israel. And then the older man spoke again, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, who has given us the Torah of truth, of eternal life implanted within us. Blessed are You, Hashem, the giver of the Torah.” And when he’d finished, everyone sang, candy was thrown around and slowly the man was lowered back to the floor.
A few minutes later, again a special prayer calling up another man – this one is called the Hatan Bereshit – and he is the one given the honor of saying the blessing for the first section of the Torah that would now be read. Again there was singing; again six men came to escort him under the canopy of a prayer shawl. There was an interesting contrast. The elderly man was probably in his 70s; this man is likely in his 40s. This time, the man was very tall, taller than the men who escorted him and so he lifted his hands up to push the prayer shawl/canopy even higher as he made his way to say the blessing that would begin the Torah reading.
The images are there in my mind – of the old man, bent over and walking slowly carrying the Torah that he and his family had saved from the Nazis; of the elderly man whose body was frail enough that he needed to be in a wheelchair with a voice strong enough to be heard throughout the synagogue; of the tall, younger man who welcomed in the new cycle of reading the Torah.
Images of hundreds of men dancing – fast enough to show the joy and the energy with arms and legs moving quickly…and yet careful enough never to hurt a child or bump into the older men. Images of the children hoisted onto their fathers’ shoulders. And the sounds of singing and joy that drifted up to the balconies where we watched – there are those who find the balconies demeaning…I love them. I love the view and I love the sounds. I can imagine God looking down and watching us – and I believe He was smiling on us. And to be there in the balcony is to be closer to God as the sounds from below mix with the singing above to celebrate all that was, all that is, and all that will be in the coming year.
To close your eyes and listen is to see beyond all vision; to open your heart to the glory of a people so much in love with their God, their Torah, their land – is to understand that so long as we have days like this, so long as we have our Torah – all else is vanity, all else is nonsense.
Iran? Syria? Problems in the Sinai? North Korea? Obama? Hatred of the Swedes and their foolish flotilla? Swastikas on graveyards throughout Europe?
It is nothing compared to the power of what happened in synagogue after synagogue this week. Nothing compared with everything. All who stood in the past are gone – the Romans, the Greeks, the Ancient Egyptians (and the modern ones), the Philistines, the Amalekites, the Persians (old ones and new ones), the Ottomans, the British, the Russians…Haman, Hitler, Amalek, they fall to nothing as the Torah circles and we sing and dance.
It was Simchat Torah – the joy of our Torah…I hope you can see it in your minds, feel it in your hearts. It is all about the most powerful thing in the universe – love.