(I know, I still have to finish writing about the rest of the Yamim Nora'im—but I think I'll work backwards.)
Simhat Torah, last night and today: imagine the most fun wedding in the world. And you're one of the betrothed, and everyone else is family. Not all close family—some distant relatives, a few of them rude (would they ignore the rabbi's polite plea and dare to take flash photos in the middle of services at their own shuls, I wonder?)—but even those annoying cousins get into the spirit, dancing and singing as if today were the last time to dance and sing ever.
The evening begins with slow drama. The sanctuary is cleared; little kids run up and down the middle of the big space and the rest of us grab seats along the side, forgetting that we'll sit for only a minute. The rabbis beckon us to come closer to the Ark—nothing to be afraid of! But every year we're tentative, as if traversing the empty expanse of carpet is too intimate an approach. Finally we straggle up front, and a rabbi begins to sing:
"You have been clearly shown that the Lord is God; there is none beside God." (Deuteronomy 4:35)
Has this been clearly shown to me? Do I really know? I can't, ever, but at that moment I do. The voices become more insistent with each verse, and in that wind of song is the truth of everything I don't understand but know is life, is a miracle, good and perfect.
Seven hakafot, seven rounds of careening around the sanctuary, each one about 20 minutes long, and the music keeps getting faster and faster. Sometimes I'm bored going around and around—it seems to defy our culture of always moving forward. How often can I hear the same snippet of tune, see the back doors fly by once again? But then the person grasping my left hand leaves, and I open it and wait for someone else to latch on. They do—and our chain snakes inside a different circle and around a new Torah, and the dance is completely changed. Sometimes we go so fast that I get dizzy, and it's all I can do to avoid tripping over my own feet. Sometimes we barely move, trying to squeeze between other chains that have nimbler leaders. Fast, slow, fast, never the same.
I walk out after a few hours to see hundreds of people waiting on a line that reaches around the block. We throw a good party, and all of New York knows it. It hasn't stopped feeling like home—it's still my music, still my rabbis jumping up and down in bliss with their arms wrapped around the sifrei Torah—and I'm proud that so many guests want to experience this joy, but there's no longer any room left for me. It's OK, because I return the next morning when the shul-hoppers of the Upper West Side are still in bed. We dance again, and this time I can see my own feet when I hook onto a long line of people who try to wave me aloft like a big banner as we twirl around the room.
"Last hakafah!" yells the rabbi. This is it—the culmination of every moment of prayer and pain, wish and regret, laugh and tear of the past month. The tune is a new one to me, from Isaiah 27:13:
Vehayah bayom hahu yitaka beshofar gadol uva'u ha'ovdim be'eretz Ashur vehanidachim be'eretz Mitzrayim vehishtachavu l'HASHEM behar hakodesh biYerushalayim.
"It shall be on that day that a great shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come [together], and they will prostrate themselves to HASHEM on the holy mountain in Yerushalayim."
That's us. We heard the shofar, and here we are. We all join in the last dance, even those sitting along the sides, and carve the space into concentric circles that go in different directions around the Torot.
Suddenly it's over. We sigh and straighten our tallitot, and push the bima into the middle of the room. We say farewell to eight of the scrolls as they make a final circuit around the sanctuary. Three more remain, and with their help we end and begin once again.