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Is It True That Jews Dance With Books?

Is It True That Jews Dance With Books?

On the absurdity of Simchat Torah

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Once a year, at the end of a whole string of holidays, there’s something called Simchat Torah. Jews take out all the Torah scrolls in their places of worship and dance with them. In many places, they dance with them through the streets.

It’s called hakafot, which means “going around in circles.”

Scrolls are books. So, yes, Jews dance with books.

But what you really should be asking is: Is this normal?

Books are for reading. For understanding. For discussing. Dancing? Really? Does anybody else do this?

It goes further. These are G‑d’s books. Holy scrolls. Divine work.

On Passover night, we ask “Why is tonight different than every other night?”—just because we’re crunching on flat bread and dipping a veggie in salt water. On Simchat Torah we’re going around in circles, dancing wildly with books, yet nobody asks a thing.

Why? Because everyone understands. This is a Jew: Someone who dances with G‑d’s book.

The Eternal Dance

I met a Jew who told me he had searched for spirituality and Google found it. It came in the writings of a mystic teacher whose lectures opened gates of wisdom for him.

“You have found wisdom,” I told him. “But you have not found yourself.“You have found wisdom,” I told him. “But you have not found yourself. You have found a pretty girl, but you have not found your betrothed wife. That you can find only in our Torah. It is ours, and we belong to it, for our souls have danced with it for three and a half millennia, you and I and all these Jews around us.”1

That’s what it means to dance with a book. It means, as hard as you try, as much as you would like, you can never be divorced from it. You come close, you tear apart; turn face to face, then back to back; around in circles, around and around, like two spinning magnets in constant push and pull towards each other, like two soul-mates locked in a perpetual drama of eternal romance.

So, too, a Jew dances with Torah. A teaching resonates deep within, as though his soul itself were speaking to him. Another teaching he pushes away. There are questions unresolved, issues with which he has yet to make peace.

But it is a bond not contingent on reason or fancy. It is a marriage for which there is no other match, an eternal covenant. The Torah and the Jew, they belong to one another.

The Birthright Dance

After all, Jews are born owning that book. It says so in the book itself, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is an inheritance of every Jew.”2

The Talmud takes that quite literally:

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: Anyone who withholds a teaching from a student is as though he robs him of the inheritance of his ancestors, as it is stated: “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of every Jew.”3

That is the first teaching a Jewish child must learn, as the Talmud says:

At what age do you start teaching your child? As soon as the child begins to speak, you teach him, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the inheritance of every Jew.” Then you teach, “Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One.”4

Even before the child learns to say that G‑d is one, he learns that Torah is his birthright.

Yet there are different kinds of birthrights. There are heirlooms such as jewelry and silverware. And then there’s real estate. In Biblical law, a crucial distinction lies between them. In Biblical law, there is an institution of the jubilee year:

You shall hallow the fiftieth year … It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding (achuzah) and each of you shall return to his family.5

Jewelry and silverware belong to their rightful heir until he sells them, gifts them, loses them or abandons them. But real estate always returns to its owner or his heirs in the Jubilee year. He can sell it, gift it, abandon it—but it will return. If not to him, to his children, or to his children’s children.

Which is what Rashi, the most classic of commentaries on the Torah writes, explaining the inheritance mentioned in this verse. He calls it an achuzah—“heritage real estate.” And as such, it never truly abandons us.6

And Rashi continues: We never truly abandon it. As far as we may distance ourselves from it, when we return, it is as though we have never left.

With Whom Do You Dance?

All said, the question still remains: It is a book after all. A wisdom. A teaching. We don’t dance with any of those. We dance with a living being, not with a book.

This I can answer best with a story.

In the gas chamber of Auschwitz stood a group of young boys, stripped of their clothes, awaiting their final demise. One boy sprang up and shouted: "Brothers! Today is the holiday of Simchat Torah. Before we die, let us celebrate Simchat Torah one last time.”

"We do not possess anything," the boy continued. "We do not have clothes to cover us, nor a Torah scroll with which to dance. So let us dance with G‑d Himself before we return our souls to Him.”

They danced with G‑d in the gas chamber. We dance with Him in the synagogues and in the streets.

For that is a Jew. One who embraces the Author within the book, the Teacher within the teaching, G‑d within a scroll.

And it is with Him that we dance.

Footnotes
1.
See Midrash Rabba, Lamentations 2, 13: If someone will tell you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe him … Torah among the nations, do not believe him…
2.
Deuteronomy 33:4. I use the translation “every Jew” rather than “Jewish community” according to Talmud Sanhedrin cited below.
3.
Talmud Sanhedrin 91b (last lines).
4.
Sukkot 43a.
6.
See Likkutei Sichot, volume 29, page 230 and footnotes there.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Howard Hill Phoenix October 20, 2017

thank you so much Rabbi for a beautiful and profound explanation Reply

Michele Francis Illinois October 16, 2017

Is It True that Jews Dance with Books? Oh....what a Joy Divine, Torah is mine! I myself experienced so much joy, as I completed another year of Torah study, I thought New Beginning's, this is my year of Jubilee, I am open and receptive to the multitude of miracles that our on the way to me. I can embrace my Jewish Ancestry, because the truth of Torah within, has driven away all fake appearances and injustices in my life. I am free to be me, so I dance because no one is more grateful than me! Ah, it is very personal, being one with G-d! What else can we do but dance Toda Raba, Rav Tzvi. Reply

PATRICIA ALONSO MEXICO CITY October 12, 2017

Thank you Rabbi, I keep on receiving the most amazing life lessons ever. Shalom. Reply

Anonymous October 12, 2017

This story did my heart such good. Times are difficult right now, but we always have Hashem to dance with! And we always will. Other nations may have wisdom but they consider Torah a burden. We have both wisdom and a gift of unspeakable beauty! Reply

Sue Kanata October 11, 2017

You have inspired me to see that microcosm I believe my existence to be as if a holy scroll, dancing.
In my heart, the young men who danced once more in Auschwitz, are the lovers of the world, always dancing, they are beloved.
My land space opens toward the miracle of the first reading of scripture, and so perhaps I will make sure to dance with nature more often.
In the book of our hearts, those lads who danced in the face of horror are illumine away from danger, and, surely to exist in joy and peace, holy scrolls that they are. Reply

Andre Graize Minas Gerais, Brazil October 9, 2017

That's great! I'm not a Jew, actually I have been myself, and by doing that I was reading this fantastic article and I've thought I could do that even without a Torah, directly to G-d and then I keep reading I felt like those Jews in the gas chamber by someway. Thank you very much for what you have been and done. Reply

jim dallas October 9, 2017

there is so much to say, no way to say it, for the time you've said it all....here is to simchat Torah, thank HaShem!
such an artist! Reply

Anonymous October 8, 2017

Thank you for this reaffirming and uplifting article, Rabbi.

Those brave and faithful boys. How pleased Hashem must be with them. Reply

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