Global Jewish Reflections | Finding Hakafot in the COVID Era

As a JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Helsinki, Jake Berger discovered the joy of the Simchat Torah hakafot celebration. This year, with communal celebration impossible, he considers the meaning of the tradition.

By Jake Berger - 2017-2018 JDC Entwine-Yesod Jewish Service Corps Fellow, Helsinki, Finland | October 9, 2020

On Simchat Torah, we conclude our communal reading of the Torah and begin the cycle again. Many communities mark the holiday by unrolling the Torah scroll in its entirety.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

“Ve-samachta be-chagecha vehayita ach sameach…”

Having arrived fresh to Finland as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service CorpsFellow just in time for the High Holy Days in 2017, Simchat Torah came at a time when my new surroundings had just started to have a sense of familiarity about them. 

I’d sat on the wooden pews of Helsinki’s beautiful synagogue for many hoursduring Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur admiring its pale green interior, began the process of meeting and learning about the city’s Jewish community, and had hosted my first event for young adults, an evening in the synagogue’s sukkah sippingmugs of glögi,a warm Nordic spiced wine. Most importantly, I had also experienced my first post-sauna dip in the Baltic Sea, something that would become a weekly personal ritual for me as my time in Finland progressed — another sign of my cultural acclimation.

Jake Berger swims in the Baltic Sea.

However, I was, as it turned out, wholly unprepared for Simchat Torah. 

Taking place midweek, it was designated as a teemapäivä (‘themeday’) in the Helsinki Jewish School. Accordingly, the whole school had gathered in the synagogue divided into grades in order to join with and lead the communal hakafot,the traditional celebratory circling of the synagogue with the Torah scrolls. The calm Nordic serenity I’d come to know was put on ice, as people sang, danced, and dodged the deluge of sweets that were being thrown in every direction.

How alien that all seems now.

Like many others, my professional life at the Boardof Deputies of British Jews, the representative body of the British Jewish community, has shifted to remote-working, where from ourliving rooms rather than Westminster we have been liaising with the authorities to establish how best Jewish communal life can proceed taking into account the latest public health guidance. And DAVAR,the immersive Jewish art initiative that I started together with two friends, has transitioned online with the helpful support of JunctionEurope, the pan-European partnership between JDC, the SchustermanFamily Foundation, and YESOD.

Needless to say, all of the Jewish festivals over the past months have beenmarkedly different to previous years. Socially-distanced services experienced through masks, communal gatherings held from screen-to-screen rather than face-to-face, Passover seders without the ability to welcome anyone who is hungry to come eat. 

The Jewish people have multiple ways of celebrating the Torah. Simchat Torahisn’t actually the first holiday we’ve had during the pandemic that is explicitly about this — an alternative name for Shavuot is z’manmatan torateinu (the season of the giving of Torah), and its practices specifically commemorate the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Reflecting on the distinctive purpose of Simchat Torah therefore, and inparticular my experience of it in Finland, has given me some clarity on how to glean meaning from the holiday.

Jake Berger

The act of engaging with Jewish text is most usually cerebral (thoughwe are attempting to change that with DAVAR). A popular custom on Shavuot, for instance, is to stay up all night learning at TikkunLeil. It’s not necessarily, at its core, a physical experience.

The same could be said of times right now. We haven’t really had to goanywhere to be engaged in community recently; as the physical spaces that we exist in have shrunk, everything has come to us in our homes.In actuality, the feeling of being overwhelmed at all of the (often excellent) digital Judaism content out there has been quite commonplace.

The sheer physicality of Simchat Torah makes it distinctive, and thus tricky to navigate at the moment.

The sheer physicality of Simchat Torah, though, makes it distinctive, andthus tricky to navigate at the moment. For sure, there are rituals that we’ve been able to recreate at home in different ways. But the experience of communal hakafot —dancing and singing and being joyful together — will evade us.

Perhaps surprisingly, 18th-century sage the Vilna Gaon notes that the majorcommandment relating to Simchat Torah, of “ve-samachtabe-chagecha,” (“to rejoice in Your Festival,” Deuteronomy 16:14) is the most difficult to fulfill in the Torah. This seems a littlestrange at first — how could that possibly be the case? But when our avenues for expressing that joy together are constrained, it is easy to see how we might be a little less joyful this time ‘round. The argument could be made, therefore, that Simchat Torahwill be the festival that has practices that will be the most affected and altered this year.

However, the physicality of the holiday isn’t its only distinctive feature. 

Simchat Torah also marks the end and beginning of the annual cycle of Torahportions. In many communities, it is considered a distinguished honor for the people who are invited up for the final reading of the previous cycle, and the first reading of the new one. The idea of hakafot —meaning circles — is symbolic of the perpetuity of the cycle of the reading of the Torah.

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the High Holy Day period — itself a seriesof cycles. The opening of the new year with Rosh Hashanah, the closing of the previous one with Yom Kippur, and the transition between cycles of Torah reading.

In a way, it’s quite fitting that we’re unable to carry out the traditionof hakafot toits fullest this year. In missing the sheer physicality of the holiday, we are forced to focus on the passage of time and our interaction with it. That’s what the Jewish festivals have been about for me these past months — providing an increasingly much-neededseries of punctuation marks to an otherwise prosaic, muddled existence. 

In recognizing the importance that Judaism places on time and its progression,I hope we can experience joy this Simchat Torah and beyond. We’ll be dancing together again soon, I’m sure.

Jake Berger, 25, served as the 2017-2018 JDC Entwine-YesodJewish Service Corps Fellow in Helsinki, Finland. He currently works in public affairs at the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London, and is co-founder of DAVAR —an initiative that fuses Jewish text and art to create immersive experiences. Separately, he volunteers for Limmud, where he was Programming Co-Chair for Festival 2019 and is working on Shabbat and innovation for this year’s event.

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