Thursday, September 30, 2010
By Susan Esther Barnes
When I arrived at the synagogue at about 10 minutes to 6 pm, there were a few bottles of spirits, as well as some cold water, on a table near the front door. I had my first taste ever of peppermint schnapps. I suppose that’s one way to loosen people up for dancing, particularly people like me who don’t drink much or often.
A little after 6, we went into the sanctuary. Most of the chairs had been removed. There was a line of chairs along the outer wall facing in, and a couple of tables with some chairs around them in the center.
We sat down at the center tables, and studied the last couple of chapters of the Torah. It was pretty hot in the sanctuary (we don’t have any air conditioning), so we turned on a couple of large standing fans. The fans made it harder to hear each other, but the breeze they created was welcome.
Some of the “regular” Saturday morning Torah Study group was there, but there were quite a few others as well. When you’re studying Torah, you never know what’s going to come up. For instance, last Saturday we read the part in which Moses asks to see God, and God says (I’m paraphrasing here), “You can’t see my face but I’ll shield you in the crevice of a rock with my hand as I pass by, and then you can see my back.”
We were talking about why God would do it that way, when it suddenly occurred to me how well that describes what happens when we’re in distress, like Moses was after he learned he wouldn’t live long enough to make it to the Promised Land.
In times of trouble, we generally don’t see God coming, but we are shielded by God’s hand during the worst of it, and it isn’t until later that we see God receding and are able to be thankful for the strength and comfort God gave us while we were suffering the most.
At any rate, a little after 7 we concluded our study and removed the tables and chairs from the center of the room. Children and others who wouldn’t mind doing so were invited to sit on the carpet in the middle of the room, while others sat on the chairs along the walls.
We sang some songs, and then two of the Torah scrolls were removed from the ark and completely unrolled. Adults held the parchment while children were invited to come up close to get a good look at the writing.
Over the past couple of years, people from the Torah study group have participated in the “pasuk project.” A “pasuk” is a verse. As we read through the Torah, when we were struck by a particular verse, we would write down which verse it was and why it meant something special to us, and this information was then posted on the wall in the room where the Torah study group meets on Saturday mornings.
I like the project for a number of reasons. First, it helps us to personalize what we’re reading, and to show how it is relevant in our lives today. Second, the room is used for various other purposes throughout the week, and the verses on the wall remind others of the importance of the Torah and learning in everything we do at the synagogue and in our daily lives.
We also used the project in our Simchat Torah celebration this year. After the Torah scrolls were unrolled, all of us present who had picked a verse stood near that verse on one of the scrolls, and one by one we told the congregation which verse we had picked and why.
Then it was time for the dancing. While the two scrolls were rolled back up, the remaining scrolls were taken from the ark, the band started up, and the dancing began, with one Torah in the center of each group. I was happy to see a Torah being carried to those still sitting because they are not able to move around easily, so they could participate too.
Later, one of the groups danced around a number of elderly people sitting in chairs, and another group danced around the sukkah outside. I heard yet another group danced out the front doors, and may have even made it into the parking lot. During the last dance, the woman next to me exclaimed, “This is the best Simchat Torah ever!”
When the dancing was over, we gathered on the bimah (or as close to it as we could get) while the white High Holy Day mantles were removed from the Torah scrolls and replaced with the mantles they wear for most of the year. As the last Torah made its way up to the ark, on an impulse I reached out my hand to kiss it, and was pleased to see several others, both adults and children, follow my example.
On the way out, we were treated to bowls of apples for a sweet new year, and we had our last chance to stand in the small sukkah out front before it and its big brother in the back are taken down and stored away again.
As one congregant remarked on the way out, “It’s not a bad way to start the new year, is it?”