Thursday 30 September 2010

Dancing in the Dark

Imagine condemned criminals dancing for joy around the courtroom holding up the very documents that seal their fates! That bizarre scenario becomes a reality for the Jewish people every year when they celebrate Simchat Torah: “Joy of the Law”.
Today was “Simchat Torah” and every year on 23 Tishri in the Jewish calendar, Jewish people celebrate the conclusion and restart of their annual Torah-reading cycle with an unbridled joy that surpasses even the joy of Sukkot.

Every year, the books of Moses are read in synagogues, starting with Genesis 1 and concluding, at the end of the year, with Deuteronomy 34. Tishri 23 began last evening and in synagogues tomorrow (Friday 1 October), chapters 33 and 34 of Deuteronomy will conclude the annual cycle of Torah readings. Genesis 1, the first chapter of the new cycle will also be read.

At Simchat Torah, it is customary for every man to take part in the celebration by receiving an aliyah, by “going up” to the bimah in synagogue to read from the books of Moses. Children too receive an aliyah, but the highlight of Simchat Torah is the hakafot, when congregants march and dance with Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue.

On reflection, there is something profoundly sad about Jewish rejoicing in the Torah. At one level, it is wonderful to possess God’s law, or instruction (which is what the Hebrew word Torah means), and we should be grateful for it. But to rejoice with unrestrained joy is another matter altogether, for the Torah is not an unmixed blessing. According to the apostle Paul, the Torah is a curse because it condemns us all, and if Jewish people can read the Torah and rejoice in it, there is only one conclusion to be reached: they simply have not understood it.

Messiah Jesus instructed his Jewish disciples to rejoice that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:21). Jewish people around the world spent the Jewish New Year, the ten Days of Awe and Yom Kippur seeking to have their names inscribed in heaven, in the Book of Life, but were not able to rejoice. Today, Jewish people rejoiced in the very law that keeps them from being written in the heavenly volume.

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