October 12, 2006
Live from the ‘hood: we’re gonna party like it’s 5667
The mother of all parties
One thing that bothers me is how so many Jews go bonkers on Simchat Torah. If you're not sure what I mean, come visit my Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the eighth night of Sukkot. It's not quite Mardi Gras or Rio's Carnival, but you get the picture. This is the night when Grey Goose and Johnny Walker own the Pico strip.
As Torah scrolls are paraded inside the many shuls, a wild and crazy euphoria sweeps the strip. You'll see Talmudic types rediscovering their rowdy inner selves, and Orthodox teenagers carousing in posse formation. There are even tourists from the Valley coming to check out the action. This is not a party, it's the mother of all parties.
And please don't think that I'm trying to coolly exclude myself from this holy balagan. My vocal chords will probably never forgive me for what I have done to them during a few Simchat Torahs past, some of which I can only faintly recollect.
Still, I do remember a little voice inside of me asking some uncomfortable questions, such as: How Jewish is all this rowdiness? Where is the depth and dignity so prevalent in other holidays? Can hard partying really be an expression of Torah joy?
I can see going a little nuts on Purim, when we celebrate a seminal victory that saved the Jewish people, but going bananas on a day of Torah?
So I decided to do some digging.
The first thing I uncovered is the special significance of the number eight. In our mystical tradition, just as the number seven alludes to time and to the cycle of nature, the number eight transcends time. It represents the day beyond days, when normal rhythms and boundaries do not apply. Simchat Torah, which falls on the eighth night of Sukkot, and celebrates something that itself transcends time (Torah), is ideally suited to break ordinary boundaries. Now stay with me; the plot thickens.
The explosion of joy on Simchat Torah is also the climax of a remarkable cycle of Jewish holidays that links the Torah with the liberation of our bodies and souls, by way of our emotions (I warned you). At Passover, our bodies are liberated from slavery and bondage, but this liberation is not complete until the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the gift that gives purpose to our liberation: the Torah. This revelation is so mind-blowing that we learn the fear of God.
Six months later, a similar holiday pas de deux completes the cycle. The holiday of Sukkot liberates not our bodies but our souls, by freeing us from the bondage of materialism. This liberation, again, is not complete until we embrace the Torah, this time courtesy of Simchat Torah. By now, the Torah has earned our trust, so it inspires not fear but love for God's eternal gift. There's no fear without love, and no love without fear. Thanks to Simchat Torah, this holy cycle of liberation is now complete, and we can go party.
Is it any wonder, then, that we go a little over the top on Simchat Torah? On a day that transcends time, when we've liberated our souls, our love of Torah and our single malts, how could we not have a celebration to end all celebrations? How could we not get even a little rowdy?
It's as if God is throwing us a party and picking up the tab, telling us that if we're so madly in love, it's OK to get a little carried away. Come to think of it, God must be pretty happy with us. Really, could you think of another people that reserves its most joyous day of the year to celebrate ... a book! And raises it really high like a professional athlete raises a championship trophy?
You can bet that in my new neighborhood, this book will be raised really high.
Nothing Jewish is done halfway here. If Simchat Torah takes the joy of Judaism to another level, then I must live in the Simchat Torah of neighborhoods.
On the big night, I'll probably start by watching grown men dance on tables at the Pinto shul, and then meander my way to the B'nai David parking lot, where Chabad usually throws its annual bash. With one of my kids on my shoulders, and the others ready for their annual Torah song and dance, I'll then face an embarrassment of riches: killer celebrations at Aish, Beth Jacob, YICC (Young Israel of Century City), Mogen David and many more.
Wherever we end up, though, I don't think I'll be too bothered if people get rowdy, as long as their souls are liberated.