“Would you like to hold it?” he asked me.
I was deeply honored by the question but also concerned about dropping it or making ignorant missteps, so I declined. I did smile though, and the Torah scroll was handed over to another person for additional whirling and merriment.
More than a decade ago, I was a Presbyterian seminary student, and I was grateful to visit a Conservative Jewish synagogue with members of my class. We were present for Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday that marks the end of a cycle of public Torah readings and a new beginning for the next cycle. On this night, the Torah scrolls of the ark are removed, and the community dances with them.
I knew I was going to experience a meaningful interfaith encounter; I had no idea I was going to cut a rug with Torah scrolls. And cut a rug we did!
This celebration was joyous and gleeful, and it lasted for a couple of hours. It was an meaningful experience, and along with my classmates, I was grateful to be welcomed into the community holiday. It was the kind experience you cannot quite anticipate as a guest. You have to be present with it as it unfolds, finding yourself within a moment in the midst of community.
The dancing was meaningful and memorable, but right alongside it, there was an another moment when I suddenly found myself within a community experience I could not have anticipated. The Rabbi invited everyone to come close together, and members of the synagogue unrolled the Torah scroll so that it encircled the people. We were inside the text, in a sense. Then the Rabbi traveled around that circle of text and shared its stories as the larger, unfolding story of the people. He said things like,
“This is when we were created, along with the entire world.”
“This is when we were liberated from slavery in Egypt.”
“This is when we received the law.”
This is when we…
We stood there, peopled.
And I was so drawn to that sense of being gathered together, encircled by story and peopled together by a shared story.
It was the kind experience you cannot quite anticipate as a guest — the kind of experience when you find yourself suddenly peopled too.