Celebrating Layers of Meaning on Simchat Torah
On Simchat Torah, I watch as the Torah scroll is carefully unfurled by congregants onto a series of long connected tables. The columns are exposed one-upon-one, revealing the patterns between the two wooden poles known as the “trees of life.” The markings dance before my eyes as letters made of blackened oak gall-nut ink contrast with the talc-rubbed white animal skin. The calligrapher in me delights in those handwritten pages. The Jew in me loves that they are so much more than designs scattered on parchment sheets sewn together with animal sinew.
I am reminded of the teaching of the 18th-century Chasidic teacher Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl who opens his commentary on the Torah portion Chukat with these words:
It is understood that the Torah is letters, vowels, cantillation and crowns. This is how the Torah was revealed, to make it possible for every human to understand, so each person could achieve according to their own capabilities and attain enlightenment. (Me’or Einayim, Chukat)
Menachem Nachum teaches that the pages of our Torah text are layered with interpretation. The written letters the scribe writes in the Torah are one level of transmission, the vowel sounds and the cantillation marks added by the Masoretes (6th- to 10th-century scribes and scholars who help create the text of the Bible) to interpret the sound and melody of Torah aloud add insight to the text, and the crowns the scribes use to adorn some letters of the alphabet in the scroll beg their own nuances. Each mark is a gloss on God’s word, adding meaning, creativity, inspiration, and awe, taking us deeper and deeper into the depth of Torah.
This layering of meaning is acted out by some congregations as they parade with all their Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah in a series of circles known as hakafot (going around). Before each of seven circular processions, an acrostic prayer in the order of the Hebrew alphabet is intoned. Uttering the order of the letters suggests something magical is about to be revealed through letters, a forewarning of the depth of the upcoming reading of God-inspired markings. With each of the reading-revelations of the alphabet poem, a joyous circular dance erupts.
The circular parades augment the symbolism too. Circles in many cultures are a symbol of wholeness. So, too, in Judaism. In this magical drama of Simchat Torah, celebrating God’s revealed letters, the congregation and its circular parades physically mimic the story cycle of Torah readings. The congregation parades seven times for the number seven is an indication of wholeness – a complete rotation.
Then, finally, to add to the mystery of the Simchat Torah moment, the congregation adds an eighth circle. Eight is the number that indicates beyond the complete. That eighth cycle is the reading of Torah itself as the community chants the last words of Deuteronomy immediately followed by the first words of Genesis. In that eighth circle, beyond totality, is our hint that an understanding of Torah is outside what we can comprehend. The Torah comes from the One Without End, the One with whom we yearn to comprehend and connect. Torah originates and continuously flows from God’s abundance.
All the Torah that we read and understand is a hint of God beyond. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Ben Bag says referring to Torah: “Turn it and turn it, within it is everything. Reflect on it and grow old with it. Don’t discard it, for nothing is better than it.” With these words he explains that Torah is a lifetime endeavor that will continue to reveal insight. “…within it is everything” – within it is the Holy One. Menachem Mendel teaches that a layered meaning is found in each stroke, pronunciation, melodic interpretation, and decoration, unfurling its own revelation of text. Our hakafot seven, and our reading eight, indicate for us a depth beyond depths to which all of this transcends.
Simchat Torah in my congregation is the rolling out of the Torah onto a long table. It is music, flags, parades, a Torah review as some b’nei mitzvah revisit phrases of their Torah readings, and the Torah chanting of the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis under a raised chuppah (wedding canopy). Whatever your synagogue’s customs for celebration, Simchat Torah is so much more than these tangible actions.
Simchat Torah is a joyful celebration of the never-ending story that leads us to the Holy One that transcends our being and understanding. So, we will re-commence the cycle of reading on Simchat Torah, hoping that our interaction with the text this year will add a tad to our comprehension of that which can never be completed, because it is more than a whole, and strengthen our connection to God.