Temple Shir Tikva, Winchester, MA–Photo: Steven L. Alexander
I have a friend who is a practicing Jew, although not a person of conventionally devout temperament. She is a tenacious, full-hearted Jew, but you won’t hear her spouting pieties. Nevertheless, on the morning of Simchat Torah, when the last Torah portion of the annual cycle of readings from the Five Books of Moses is read in her synagogue, she always finds herself weeping. It never fails, she says; she is inexplicably overcome at the death of Moses every year, downright inconsolable in fact—until she remembers that ‘he comes around again’ in the liturgy of the following year.
To her on this morning Moses is no distant hero, and his story—and the story of the Hebrew children he liberates and leads and begs God to spare when they get up to unforgivable mischief in the wilderness—no mere ‘bible story.” He is her liberator and leader, the story of the people her story. Her memory is so collective it’s personal, like the pre-teen Jewish kid in a New Jersey middle school class about culture who, when asked to summon up his very first childhood memory, declared without missing a beat, “I remember Abraham.”
And so my friend weeps on Simchat Torah, overwhelmed with sadness that Moses has died. She doesn’t get that weepy over all the weekly parshas, to be sure; but there’s something about finishing the story, coming to the end, that affects her deeply. The gift of the liturgy, however, is that the very next week, it starts all over again with the reading from Genesis—“In the beginning…”
When we Christian lectionary preachers complain about getting bored when this story or that one comes up again in the 3-year cycle and we have to preach on it again, I think about my friend weeping over the death of Moses. When we chafe under the repetitious nature of preaching with a lectionary to begin with, or we wish we could tell some other story because we don’t resonate with a particular text—it just doesn’t speak to me, we say— I think of her sadness. Her sadness because it is ending, and her joy when it all begins again. And when we are bent over our commentaries or searching the internet looking for a new angle to preach, something relevant to say, something ‘creative’ we can do with these texts, I think of the festival of Simchat Torah, when the scrolls are taken out and handed ‘round to be kissed and danced and acclaimed, the festival when critical questions cease for just a little while so that love can take over the room.
Chaim Potok writes about the experience of a young Orthodox Jew named David Laurie in a scene from his novel, In the Beginning. There’s a question for us gentiles at the end of the scene that I am trying to hear. That I am trying to answer. Maybe you want to think about it too.
“I remember one night when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning. The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember one white-bearded Torah-reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls, as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and my uncle danced for what seemed an interminable time, circling about one another, rocking their scrolls, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my scroll to someone in the crowd and went out the rear door to the back porch, and let the air cool my face. The noise and the dancing came clearly through the open windows; and undulating swelling and receding, thinning and growing and receding, and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with Torah, rocking it and holding it close to your heart, the very word of God. And I wondered if gentiles ever danced with their Bible. Hey, Tony and Eddie: do you ever rock it and hold it and know how much you love it?”
Living as the “Shabbos goy” on my block in a Hasidic neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has blessed me with the experiences of Simchat Torah and the singing and dancing of street processions with a newly completed Torah under its ornate canopy. These experience never fail to fill me with joy and tenderness for the sacred text through which the Word of God speaks to us!
I try to infuse my handling of the Gospel Book during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass with as much of that joy and tenderness as I can. While we generally don’t dance wildly during the procession of the Gospel from altar to ambo and back again, we do sing an enthusiastic “Alleluia!” chant, and the procession itself, with incense and lights, is a kind of stylized dance. On the way to the ambo, we bear the Gospel raised high (after the Latin tradition) and on the way back we carry it cradled lovingly in our arms (after the the Greek tradition). The Gospel Book is venerated with kissing.
As for “getting bored” or the possibility that I might “chafe under the repetitious nature of preaching with a lectionary,” after 40 years as a priest, I cannot say I resonate with those words at all! I have always felt blessed and grateful for–and, frequently, challenged by–the gift of the lectionary. Each time we part with a year’s cycle, I know the “sweet sorrow” of the parting; then the following Sunday’s entrance into the next year’s cycle fills me with the joyful anticipation of meeting old friends again and seeing how much they have changed yet remained the same during their three year absence.
Thanks for this rich comment, Ted. I wish more preachers could say they don’t get bored and never chafe. Alas, I fear you may be offering the minority report! I love what you have to say here, and I expect I would love hearing you unfold the texts as well. Thanks again.
This is an awesomely powerful image. I know that whenever I read your posts, I will come away with a renewed sense of the liturgical history of the texts we all hold sacred. As I have been thinking about our own pericope for this Sunday, I have been reflecting on how the life and testament of Moses creates a “Spiritual Architecture” for the people to build on as their story is renewed over and over again. He reminds them that as long as the basic foundational materials are there, the freedom to build and grow is unlimited. I can see how this would be a cause for joy and dancing–we have a framework that orders and gives meaning to our lives! I see that reflected in the Psalms, and this week, in the teaching of Jesus and Paul as they return to the foundation to strengthen the community of faith. Perhaps they would have done well to have encouraged a little dancing in there, too.
Love this comment…thanks so much!