For seven days of Sukkot, Jews walk around in circles, carrying an assortment of green and yellow flora. Then, on Simchat Torah, they dance in circles carrying Hebrew scrolls, working up to a frenzy.
Did I say dance? Well, it’s more like marching, your hands over the next guy’s shoulders, singing and stomping as you march to . . . the same place you started from. Repeat until you plotz.
Are Jews normal?
The short answer: Yes.
No, you don’t see this at your typical social club event. But then, as any anthropologist will tell you, it’s modernity that’s weird, not the other way around. People have been dancing in circles in celebration, in ritual, and just to have fun, in every part of the world ever since there were circles and people. It’s just that it takes Jewish genius to continue doing something so tribal in such an extremely post-tribal world.
Now for my confession: I am one of those weird modern people.
When I was first invited, cajoled and nudniked to join the circular festivities, I was more than hesitant. I attempted to explain that I didn’t see the point of walking in such a way that you don’t get any further than where you started. Needless to say, the argument was ignored, and I was swept into the circle whether I liked it or not.
And I felt stupid. For about the first 40,000 circuits. After that, I forgot about myself and how I felt and what I was doing and why I was doing it and whether I was stupid and that I was there at all. And that’s when the circle became good. Very good.
It was goodIn the circle, I dissolves into we. exactly due to that which I had subliminally feared. Because as I stand here, I am I. In the circle, that I dissolves into we. And in that very act of transcendence, that loss of self, there is unbounded joy.
We Without Cause
There are other ways to dissolve the I into we. You can march to war. Or march for a cause. You can rave at a concert. You can throw rocks at a protest. Or just go wild in the bleachers cheering for your team at a football game.
But there’s a difference. The march is going somewhere—against someone, for something, saying something. The concert, the protest, the game—there’s something there, an extrinsic force, that’s uniting all those people, stripping human beings of their sense of individual selfness and rendering them into a monstrous mass.
In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no place to go. We are just one because we are.
In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no enemy and nowhere we are going. We are just one. Because we are.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the classic medieval biblical and talmudic commentator) knew this.
When Pharaoh and his army chased after the Children of Israel, Rashi says they came “with one heart, as one person.” Heart first, then person.
When the Children of Israel camped at Mount Sinai, Rashi says they camped “as one person, with one heart.” Person first, then heart.
Why the switch?
Because Pharaoh and his army were many individuals united by a cause. The Children of Israel were one because they were innately one, and that one now had one heart as well.
The Zulu have a word for it: ubuntu. Generally translated by us weird Westerners as “community” or “social responsibility”—because that’s all we know. But an entire world that we have lost in our modernity opens before us when a tribesman is asked to explain the word. He will say it means, “I am because we are; we are because I am.”
To feel one with the people of your village, that is a lost treasure. To be one with a people spread over the farthest reaches of the planet for 2,000 years, speaking different languages, living vastly different lifestyles—that is G‑dly.
After a joyous festival of Jews coming together in each other’s sukkahs, in the synagogue and in kosher supermarkets buying oodles of food to feed each other in those sukkahs, G‑d asks them to make one more day of festivity called “Shemini Atzeret.” That means “the eighth day of holding back.”
Who’s holding back what?
The Midrash explains: G‑d says, “It’s hard for me to see you part from one another. Hold back another day, and we’ll celebrate together.”
So we celebrate that we are one, in the oneness of a circle. So that we stay one, even when we part. Because we are.