(Interrupting myself again--I'll finish the story one of these weeks!)
I've been learning a really long section to chant on Aug. 20. (Long for me, a whole column in the scroll; it takes seven minutes to sing. But for those who chant the entire k'ria--each week's portion in its entirety rather than a third per year, as in most Conservative and Reform synagogues--a column is nothing. Many Orthodox shuls have one person, a man who mastered this skill at his Bar Mitzvah, read the whole thing each week, i.e. roughly 20 times longer than what I will read, give or take a few columns. He sings very quickly, so that the congregation can get home in time for lunch.)
One of the lines in my portion is also read at the evening service of Simchat Torah as the scrolls are removed from the Ark in preparation for hakafot, the joyous, raucous dance of people and Torahs around the synagogue. In parashat Va'ethannan, Deut. 4:35, Moses entreats the Israelites to remember and observe the commandments, because
"It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him."
These words, read just as the Ark opens, at first left me cold. In the passive voice--"it has been clearly demonstrated"--they seemed legalistic and impersonal, a formulaic proof to be committed to dry, fuzzy memory. But last year the rabbi offered a different interpretation. "There is none beside God," he said, means there is nothing but God--all is God. This is certainly not an uncommon idea in Jewish prayer. The Shema, which we recite daily, states "The Lord is One" and therefore One--wholeness, completeness, all of creation--is God. But I had never before heard this concept phrased in the rabbi's particular choice of words. "All is God" sounded like more than one, pantheistic, radical, even heretical, and completely at odds with the traditional image of a paternal overseer in the sky. It was also how I believed, and had only recently figured out how to admit. And hearing acknowledgment that others understood as I did, too, stopped me in my tracks--literally; I froze at the back of the sanctuary as everyone else drew towards the Ark in anticipation--and made me want hold those scrolls close to my heart and dance all night long, which I did.