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I’m going off book this week.
See, this week included the last holiday for what feels like a very, very long time. Hanukkah isn’t actually so far away– it starts a little before Christmas this year, I think– but after the slew of holidays that have peppered the last month, the notion of a 2-month normal stretch seems pretty crazy.
After Christmas in the US, people put out their Christmas trees. After Sukkot in Israel, people put out their scakh (the sukkah roofs!)
Simchat Torah means “Joy of Torah,” which is a pretty apt title for a holiday that’s all about saying: “We just finished reading the whole 5 Books of Moses! Let’s start over! Wahoo!” Celebration typically involves dancing about, singing, carrying Torahs around the congregation (and, often, out into the streets), and, naturally, rolling the Torah back from the end of D’varim (Deuteronomy) to the beginning of Bereshit (Genesis). It can be quite the party, and I was excited to experience it here.
At Nava Tehila, we once again prayed outside, and it was beautiful. We circled from Moses’s death at the end of the five books to “in the beginning” at, well, y’know. Anybody in the congregation who wanted to come up was welcomed for an aliyah. We celebrated people in all stages of their lives. Then, with the children seated on blankets in the middle of the congregation, we moved the chairs back and unrolled the entire Torah, each adult holding a small section up, tenderly circling the children with holy words. It was stunning. I’ve been lucky enough to see the entire Torah unrolled on a number of occasions, but it was something else to be part of it in this space outside, under a perfect autumn blue sky that lapped up the golden tan of the parchment, and early afternoon sunlight that nestled the dark ink so that it seemed to shine brighter than ever.
To unroll the Torah in that space and to sing would have been enough. Instead, a member of the congregation walked around from beginning to end and gave more or less a synopsis, lovingly summing up the goings on column by column. At the end of each book, we joined together in chanting the traditional words “Hazak hazak v’nithazak– be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” That would have been enough.
Instead, more members of the community entered the middle of the circle and walked around, offering blessings to each and every person who wanted one. To get a blessing, all one needed to do was point to a random verse of Torah. That’s the amazing thing about holding the unrolled Torah. You can maybe, depending on how good your eyes are, read the columns across from your column. You can’t read your own. The angle is all wrong. I had a basic idea of where I was in the Torah (somewhere in Numbers around the priestly blessing), but I didn’t know exactly which verses my own hands were cradling. So, I pointed and hoped.
The blessing-offering woman, who luckily for me happened to be American, looked at the verse for a few moments and then smiled. “This is beautiful,” she said. “Do you know who Nachshon ben Aminadav was?”
Did I know who Nachshon ben Aminadav was? Yes. Yes, I did. For one thing, he shows up pretty dramatically in this Hamilton Haggadah song, so I think of him as being more-or-less Hercules Mulligan. For another thing, at RRC they call my class the “Nachshons.” The RRC curriculum is undergoing a pretty major shift, and my class has been the one to beta most of the new stuff. I could talk about that more, but it’s almost shabbat and I’m trying to think happy thoughts. In any case, I’m used to being the first into things.
So who was Nachshon? Well, according to Torah (Numbers 7:12) he was the first man to bring his offerings to the Tabernacle. But, like many things in Torah, that wasn’t enough information for the rabbis, so we have a great story about him. Nachshon, we say, walked into the Red Sea up to his neck, and only then did the waters part. He took the leap of faith that allowed the Israelites to be freed from Pharaoh.
I could have been holding any column of the Torah and happened to be holding that one. I could have pointed to any verse of the column and pointed there. It’s sorta like what happened at the kotel with the caper berry. I don’t believe in a God that made my finger point to that verse, but I do believe in a God that endowed creation with wisdom to draw connections and feel inspiration when it’s needed. And it was needed.
The woman giving me the blessing offered me what has carried me through this week, so, like I said, I’m going a little off-book and making this week’s Shabbos Blessing her blessing to me. I don’t know her exact words, but she said something along the lines of:
I don’t know you at all, but this makes me think that you’re like Nachshon. This verse is about a person who is very brave and takes risks for the good of the community. I want to bless you with courage as you take leaps and do things before others as a leader. They might be difficult. May your leaps be for the good and may you feel brave and supported.
I feel like my entire time in Jerusalem so far has been about deciding when and how to leap and when and how not to. I identify incredibly strongly with Nachshon as a figure in my faith, and he doesn’t show up all that often in Torah, and so it feels like such a gift that I found him on Simchat Torah.
It’s been quite the week and I’ve got more to say, but shabbat is coming earlier and earlier these days, so I think I’ll save some of my other experiences for another time. Shabbat Shalom everyone. Here’s a pile of sleepy kittens to get you in the spirit.