By Michael Mocatta
This year, we have had little option but to watch the Jewish year tick by, counting the number of Shabbatot and festivals closed or curtailed by the Covid epidemic. With the arrival of Simchat Torah and Shemini Atseret, one more milestone has passed with our synagogues empty or underpopulated, our community unable to come fully together.
How we may long for the togetherness that is the hallmark of these two festivals. Marching and dancing and singing in one raucous crowd. Our children dressed in white, carrying flags bedecked with candles that illuminate and terrify in equal measure. Sweets lubricate our little ones, whilst those older might partake of a whiskey or three. Together, the joy of the event is sparked, then transmitted from one person to the next. Together, we create an epidemic of ‘simcha’ that spreads from individual to individual, from community to community, across the whole Jewish world.
This year, we are denied these experiences. We act to reduce the R-rate of our simcha as a sensible public health precaution against the R-rate of Covid. And yet, I for one am reluctant to let this festival pass by without trying to feel the particular joy of our people’s relationship with Torah.
I’d like to suggest three practical tips for contemplating, if not celebrating, Simchat Torah at home.
1. Read the end of Torah, the final two chapters of Deuteronomy/Dvarim. Pay particular attention to God’s blessings to each tribe. Find a blessing that stirs your heart and meditate on it. Absorb it, and let it be
2. Read the start of Torah, the first seven days of creation. Note the relation between darkness and light. Light is a newcomer, with Darkness existing from the moment of creation. I take this to mean that Darkness is natural, but that God acts to compensate. Is there a parallel here with how we think about Covid?
3. Then count the number of times that God says “it is Good”. God created a universe which is Good. Think on that for a while.
With this practice complete, may I suggest we return to Deuteronomy 33.27-28. God here is described as a refuge – we read this at a time when we all are choosing the refuge of our homes in the face of Covid. God also, we are promised, will ‘drive out our enemy’ – and we are all very much desiring this particular ‘enemy’ to be driven away.
Then the Torah promises us that, at the end of our ordeal, we will all be sitting in safety, in a land of grain and wine. Almost as if we are being promised that, one day soon, we’ll be able to drink our whiskey and celebrate, belatedly, this Simchat Torah that will have been and gone.