Sukkot, Simchat Torah and the cycle of life


NEWTON, Mass., Oct. 16 (JTA) – As we move out of the High Holiday season, we move into another series of holidays that is at once both cyclical and linear.

At the beginning of the New Jewish Year we celebrate Sukkot, thereby completing the third in a series of pilgrimage festivals. Sukkot marks the final harvest before the onset of winter. This is deceptively simple as Sukkot is really a series of festivals: Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

On each morning of Sukkot a parade occurs. We take the lulav – composed of branches of palm, willow, myrtle – and the etrog – a lemon-like fruit – in hand and parade around the synagogue beseeching, "Ana Adonai, Hoshiah, Na – Please God, Save us!"

On Hoshanah Rabbah, the Torah is taken out of the ark and held in the center of the synagogue by an honored congregant. Then the congregation parades not once, but seven times around the Torah.

Then, the willow branches are taken and beaten on the synagogue floor.

Then finally on Simchat Torah we take the Torah scrolls into our own hands and dance and parade for seven different parades. When Simchat Torah ends, Jews traditionally wish each other a healthy winter of body and spirit, and hope that the exhilaration of Simchat Torah will energize them for the challenges that lie ahead.

I am struck by the contrasts that are the connecting thread throughout this weeklong series of holidays. The connecting thread is our awe and acknowledgment of God’s power epitomized in nature and in the Torah, our desire to take these forces into our own hands and our realization that alas we cannot, they loom much larger than we. We are, at best, partners with God.

These contrasts remind of a time a number of years ago when I hesitated to go Israeli dancing in Los Angeles in the wake of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

"This is the way life is," an Israeli friend of mine expecting her first child explained to me. "We mix the bitter with the sweet and dance in the face of darkness. Look, my mother just died of leukemia, and now I’m pregnant."

The Torah is this way too: On Simchat Torah we conclude it with the death of Moses, and then begin again with the creation of the world. Life indeed goes on.

In her book, "To Begin Again," which was fittingly released two years ago on Sukkot, Rabbi Naomi Levy writes, "Nature’s grandeur cautions us not to take ourselves too seriously. It forces us to recognize our smallness and asks us to remember that splendor is a product of patience, of time. Nature’s ferocity demonstrates to us that we are not in control, that there are forces in the universe far greater than we are."

Yet it is somehow fitting that at the end of this festival of dwelling in nature, that we dance in the face of the forces more powerful than we, clutching all the while the Torah from which we find strength and sustenance.

The image of "dancing in the face of darkness” is an especially poignant one to me, as it is my synagogue’s custom to dance outside with the Torah scrolls in the chilling fall night air.

So, with dancing this festival of parade draws to a close, fortifying us with strength and energy for the challenges ahead.

(Jill Suzanne Jacobs is the Jewish family educator at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton, Mass.)

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