21 October 2019

‘Sing with us in harmony
and let our voices become more
than the sum of their parts’

‘Adoration of the Torah’ by Artur Markiowicz (1872-1934) in the Jewish Museum in the Old Synagogue, Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the last few weeks, to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days, I have been publishing blog postings on the synagogues of Dublin.

Those postings came to a conclusion on Friday. The High Holy Days, traditionally the most spiritually intense times of the Jewish year, come to an end this evening and tomorrow with Simchat Torah, which begins this evening [21 October 2019] and ends tomorrow [22 October 2019].

By the beginning of this week, many people may have holiday fatigue. There was Selichot, then the cemetery service, two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, five services on Yom Kippur, a week of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret services with Yizkor, and this evening there is Simchat Torah.

After a long round of autumn holidays and festivals, Simchat Torah (שִׂמְחַת תּוֹרָה, ‘Rejoicing with the Torah’) marks the end of one annual cycle of Torah readings, and the beginning of a new one, and it follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot.

The main celebrations of Simchat Torah take place in synagogues during the services this evening and tomorrow morning. In many synagogues, this is the only time of the year when the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and read at night. In the morning, the last appointed portion (parashah) of Deuteronomy and the first portion of Genesis are read in the synagogue.

Simchat Torah can be celebratory, raucous and joyful, all at one and the same time, and often with constant singing and dancing. Each time the Ark is opened, people leave their seats and dance and sing with the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration that often lasts many several hours.

Each member of the congregation is called up for an aliyah or a reading of the Torah from the bimah or reading platform. Sometimes, there is a special aliyah or an ‘ascent’ to the Torah, for children. Sometimes, the Torah is carried in a kind of festive parade around, preceded and followed by children waving flags.

In some communities, a Torah scroll is unrolled, from beginning to end, and people, wearing protective gloves as they touch the parchment, hold it up in a giant circle. Someone looks for a blessing for each person based on the verses near where their hands happen to be.

Many communities dance seven circuits of the synagogue while carrying the Torah – one for each day of the week, one for each colour of the rainbow, one for each of the seven sefirot or qualities of God.

For some time, for my private prayers and evening devotions, I have been using the prayer book, Service of the Heart, compiled by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, who wrote or rewrote many of the prayers and hymns it includes.

This prayer books includes this prayer for Simchat Torah:

‘Those who serve You shall be clothed in righteousness, and Your faithful ones will sing for joy. And it shall be said on that day: “Behold this is our God; we have hoped in him, and he will save us; this is the Lord; we have waited for him: let us rejoice and be glad in him.’

This prayer is based on Biblical passages (Psalm 132: 9; Isaiah 25: 9) and comes from a longer passage traditionally recited after the opening of the Ark on Simchat Torah. It was first found in the 11th century prayer books known as Machzor Vitry compiled by Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), a mediaeval French rabbi generally known by his acronym Rashi, and his disciple, Simchah Vitry.

Service of the Heart also includes a hymn sung while the Scrolls are carried in procession:

Save us, O Lord we implore You;
Prosper us, O Lord, we implore You;
Answer us, O Lord, when we call upon You.

God of all spirits, save us;
Searcher of hearts, prosper us;
Mighty Redeemer, answer us when we call upon You.

Lord, Pure and Upright, save us;
Protector of the needy, prosper us;
Benevolent and Beneficent God, answer us when we call upon You.

Eternal King, save us;
God, Radiant and Glorious, prosper us;
Upholder of the failing, answer us when we call upon You.

Helper of the weak, save us;
Redeemer and Deliver, prosper us;
Eternal Rock, answer us when we call upon You.

Lord, Holy and Awesome, save us;
Merciful and Gracious God, prosper us;
Keeper of the Covenant, answer us when we call upon You.

This is an adaptation of an early mediaeval hymn, with an alphabetic acrostic, and this too is first found in Machzor Vitry.

The first two lines in this hymn are from Psalm 118: 25, the third line is based on Psalm 20: 10. This version is slightly abridged. The hymn is traditionally sung on Simchat Torah in conjunction with the hakkafot as the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue seven times.

On her blog Velveteen Rabbi, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat has posted seven poems commissioned for last year’s celebration of Simchat Torah by Temple Beth-El of City Island, a well-known synagogue on Long Island.

They were written to accompany the seven hakkafot or circle dances with the Torah. They map to the seven ‘lower’ sefirot through which God is revealed: chesed, loving kindness; gevurah, boundaries and strength, tiferet, balance and harmony; netzach, endurance; hod, humble splendour; yesod, roots and foundation; and malchut, Shechinah.

Seven songs

Such abundance! Sunlight streaming
golden as chicken soup, rain
that comes in its season, profusion
of produce at the farmer’s market,
the way our hearts spill over
when we see someone we love, the way
Your heart flows to each of us.

Bless boundaries. Bless the chutes
that control the flood, the walls
that protect from harm. Bless
integrity holding firm.
Bless the strength to stand tall
even in the face of storms:
to bend, and not to break.

Balance us, God, like angels
dancing on the head of a pin.
Sing with us in harmony
and let our voices become more
than the sum of their parts.
When we match kindness with justice
the beauty takes my breath away.

Because we wake every morning
and start again. Because in
putting one foot in front of the next
we learn and relearn how to walk
in Your ways. Because nothing
worth doing comes easy. Because
when we keep going, we aim toward You.

No more than our place, no less
than our space: when we manage that,
we shine with the sun’s own splendour.
Remind us that we are cloaked in skin
but made of light. Remind us
that through our best actions
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

Our roots stretching deep.
Our foundations. Our generations.
Our teachers. Our drive to create.
Our students. Our readiness to open
our hands and let Torah through.
Our lives the foundries where we shape
our tradition into something new.

Where heaven meets earth, where I
meet you, where reality meets redemption
we dance like the psalmist, exulting.
Our eyes well up with a mother’s joy:
look, all of our exiled parts
ingathered beneath this leafy roof,
safe beneath the wings of Shechinah.

Torah scrolls in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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