Leaning in, my friend warned me, “Things are about to get wild.” This was my cue to pick up my plastic maraca and the purple flag that read, “Rejoice!” and began swaying along to the singing and dancing. I watched as four scrolls, held closely, were paraded around the room for the Simchat Torah service I had been invited to.
When the chain of dancers with arms interlocked found their seats again and the young ones, on a whim, had placed the flags festively in their ponytails, all but one of the scrolls were carefully put away. Then, the Rabbi began gently unrolling the smallest scroll around the room. Each person in the circle carefully held the top and the bottom of the parchment with their fingertips. The tiny, handwritten letters forced me to admit to myself that my eye doctor was right about my need for reading glasses. I can’t imagine being a scribe whose painstaking work it is to write like this each day.
Fully unrolled, the Torah stretched completely around the circle. The Rabbi pointed out the spaces which indicate the beginning of each of the five books. I learned that I was holding the latter parts of Exodus. Near me she noted the poetic indentations of Miriam’s Song of the Sea, a passage which I had recently preached on. Within the circle of people, all our fingertips tenderly holding the ribbon of intricate text, I felt physically connected with the ancient story.
Those who were bar and bat mitzvahs the year before found and read their portions. The end of Deuteronomy was read by the Rabbi. The Cantor read the first portion of Genesis, marking the beginning of a new yearly cycle of reading the Torah. I marveled at the ritual and the joy in sharing the text from generation to generation.
This Sunday our third-fifth grade class will learn about the first five books of the Bible, which the lesson book describes as the L.A.W. (emphasis mine). While this is not inaccurate, the description doesn’t conjure images of dancing and rejoicing or joyfully invite us to connect to the story, God and one another. During the Simchat Torah service, the books were described as beautiful gifts, writings which lead us in the ways of peace. I know many Christians who struggle with these texts. Literalism sneaks in, pitting science against our creation stories. God seems vengeful in the flood, causing several I know to set aside the Old Testament all together.
I wonder how we might reclaim Scripture as a gift to rejoice in, described in the Jewish prayer as, “a tree of life to those who take hold of it.” Imagine the wild joy found within the circle of those connected by this ancient, beautiful text.