It begins with notions of scattering and ends with a re-collecting. The drama encircling the Torah service demands our physical attentiveness, launching us forward with a rousing command: “Get up!” The command is found in Numbers 10:35, where the ritual method of calling forth and carrying the ark though the wilderness is given. In that verse, Moses calls out, “Advance, God! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” And in real time, we rise.
Our presence requested, we stand solidly — and do not flee — as the Sefer Torah circumnavigates the space. Metaphorically and physically, the circular journey demarcates space and renders it sacred. A landscape is created, through which the Torah moves and to which we become witness.1
“In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, an at-homeness, a knitting of self and world,” notes Indiana University’s Scott Russell Sanders. When we are truly present for a Torah service — mind focused, body aware and alert, heart open — we have the opportunity, even before hearing any words of Torah, to join a landscape: to locate ourselves, to know where we are and thereby to strive toward knowing who we are.
When we rise at this command, it is a unique rising (and a different kind of standing) than any other. Ideally, standing in the light of Torah is a physical action that brings us fully into the room, into the landscape that is constructed for holiness. We rise to be counted among those who are paying attention to the Torah’s narrative and guidance.
In the September 2009 issue of Sh’ma, Ben Sommer helped us see the ways in which Jewish life and observance necessitate a body. He writes, “We’ve begun to understand that the body can be a vehicle for holiness and that words are only part of communicating with God.” In this case, our bodies play a crucial role. Without our rising, the Torah service falls flat. With that rising, we engage with a historic moment.
Some say that this standing recalls the mountain at Sinai. It certainly could. I prefer, though, to transport the community — standing — to the open wilderness through which we marched. It is as if by standing at this ripe moment, we are carrying the ark, carrying the teachings forward into the next moment of uncertainty. There, in the undifferentiated space of midbar, or wilderness, we transform a swath of nameless desert into a landscape for learning and wisdom.
It’s the journey rather than the destination that requires our standing. Our practice is to be still while the Torah is in motion. When the Torah is placed at rest, we relinquish our standing at attention. One opinion claims that it is permissible to sit during the hakafot, the seven times we circle and parade the Torah on Simchat Torah, even though the Torah is in motion.2 This is because the Torah scrolls are not in transit; they have reached their destination. During the Simchat Torah hakafot, we are not bringing the Torahs to the reading table or returning them to the ark; rather, we are dancing with them in their place among us, the community. Our attention, stillness, and witness — keeping our faces turned toward the Torah at all times — are only commanded when the Torah is in transit.
At the beginning of the Torah service, the motion of Torah helps locate us within its landscape. At the end, its stillness does the same. The liturgy highlights the Torah’s forward motion and then its return: having begun the journey with Numbers 10:35, we end it with the next verse. Numbers 10:36 suggests a returning of disparate parts, an integration: “And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, God, to the myriad of thousands.’” The verse is cryptic, open to many interpretations. But one thing is clear: The verse connects “resting” with a re-collecting and return. We recite this verse when the scroll is indeed returned to the ark and resting there. Then, something happens to our liturgical imagery. The restful nature of Torah takes root, grows roots, and becomes still as a tree of life, etz chaim, a living tree.
What figure brings more definition to any physical landscape than a tree? We can be sheltered by its shade, grounded by its roots, able to climb through its branches. It’s a solid, stable thing to which we can hold fast, defining a place where we can “knit self and world” — and find ourselves.
1 Not all synagogues circulate the Torah among women.
2 See Aruch ha-Shulchan Y.D. 282:5email print