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.

Art by Sefira Ross
Art by Sefira Ross

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.