We live in an age of unprecedented interconnection. If your airline loses your luggage, you can just tweet at them; if you are hosting a party, feel free to send your friends an invite on Facebook.
Still, we often feel disconnected from one other. A common complaint I hear from my friends in New York City is that there are millions of people around, and yet they feel alone.
But then, as you sit in your bedroom, binge-watching “House of Cards,” Simchat Torah arrives!
Like many other Jewish holidays, Simchat Torah brings people together for communal celebration. There are two distinctive ways in which Simchat Torah highlights the value of human connection.
First, all members of the congregation are invited for an aliyah to the Torah as we end, and begin again, the annual reading cycle. This differs from the traditional Shabbat practice of having seven individuals reciting the blessings for each section of the weekly portion.
Second, Simchat Torah provides an unusual opportunity for the community to sing and dance together for hours on end. On this joyous occasion, we actually dance with the Torah scrolls in our hands, sharing in the gifts of 3,000 years of Jewish tradition and creativity. In a sense, the community we celebrate with is much larger than the people in our immediate vicinity; it includes all those who came before us, and those generations yet to come.
Appropriately, the Torah readings for Simchat Torah, from the end of the book of Deuteronomy and the opening of the book of Genesis, both point to the value of sharing space and time with others and overcoming our loneliness and self-absorption. In fact, Genesis opens with God setting the greatest example of all by creating the world, and in so doing, birthing relationship.
The great 16th-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria teaches that God actually began the process of creation through an act of “tzimtzum,” contraction or withdrawal. God made space, as it were, for others to emerge and flourish. This primal act serves as an eternal sign of the power of relationship, and the need to actively create spaces for them to blossom.
Interestingly, there has been a recent growth in communal dining restaurants. In 1997, Jeffrey Chodorow opened his Asia de Cuba in New York City, which featured a 25-foot-long table at the center of the room where all of the patrons could dine together. The restaurant did not really take off until 2001. Commenting on this late upsurge, Chodorow remarked that it resulted from a renewed desire for community born out of the devastation of 9/11, and the increasing amount of time people were spending online. “At some point in the day,” he said, “people just need to gather in groups.”
As the concluding moment of our fall holiday season, Simchat Torah is a culmination of a spiritual journey that began in the summer as we prepared for the High Holy Days. On this most festive of holidays, we celebrate the gifts of Torah, in community, knowing that we need one another to make it truly a simchah!
Misha Clebaner is a second-year student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He currently serves as the rabbinic intern at Temple B’nai Moshe in Brighton, Mass.