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 Corps
Fellow 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 hours
during 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 sipping
mugs 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.
However, I was, as it turned out, wholly unprepared for Simchat Torah.
Taking place midweek, it was designated as a teemapäivä (‘theme
day’) 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 Board
of Deputies of British Jews, the representative body of the British Jewish community, has shifted to remote-working, where from our
living 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 Junction
Europe, the pan-European partnership between JDC, the Schusterman
Family Foundation, and YESOD.
Needless to say, all of the Jewish festivals over the past months have been
markedly 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 Torah
isn’t actually the first holiday we’ve had during the pandemic that is explicitly about this — an alternative name for Shavuot is z’man
matan 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 in
particular my experience of it in Finland, has given me some clarity on how to glean meaning from the holiday.
The act of engaging with Jewish text is most usually cerebral (though
we are attempting to change that with DAVAR). A popular custom on Shavuot, for instance, is to stay up all night learning at Tikkun
Leil. 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 go
anywhere 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, and
thus 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 major
commandment relating to Simchat Torah, of “ve-samachta
be-chagecha,” (“to rejoice in Your Festival,” Deuteronomy 16:14) is the most difficult to fulfill in the Torah. This seems a little
strange 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 Torah
will 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 Torah
portions. 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 series
of 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 tradition
of hakafot to
its 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-needed
series 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-Yesod Jewish 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.