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Full circle

Shemini Atzeret

by Rabbi Steven Weil

October 12, 2006 | 8:00 pm

My daughter, the animal lover, has a father who isn't. A hamster is the biggest pet I've gotten talked into so far. It lives in her room, and basically I wouldn't even know it was there except for one thing -- it's nocturnal.
 
All night long I could hear Ruby the hamster running in its wheel. The endless spinning and squeaking was driving me crazy. I couldn't take it anymore.
 
I marched into my daughter's room, bypassing her and heading straight for the tiny workout nut. I was ready to snatch it and its blasted wheel out of the cage, when something made me stop. I stood transfixed at the sight of Ruby exercising, and it hit me how much the two of us have in common. That hamster is living my life, I thought, running, running, running in endless circles, and not really getting anywhere.
 
I granted a stay of execution.
 
For all of the benefits running in circles affords a hamster, there are no positive implications when we use the expression "running in circles" to describe our own lives. With all we have to do, it often feels that all we are doing is keeping up. The opportunity to move ahead somehow eludes us.
 
Ironically, this time of year is all about going in circles. But unlike the stressful, unconstructive feeling of running in circles that we experience in our weekday routine, the circles of these holidays have a definite purpose and a positive message. Both Sukkot and Simchat Torah are characterized by communal hakafot, or going around in circles.
 
On Sukkot, we hold the arba minim (the four species) and proceed in a circle around the Torah, thereby proclaiming its centrality and holiness in Jewish life. On Simchat Torah, we remove all of the Torahs to the periphery of the circle, and march around an empty center.
 
What is the purpose of an empty center? To quote Rabbi Solovetchik (zt"l), "The answer is that the center is not empty. God is symbolically there. When nobody is there, Someone is there. There is no place bereft of His presence. The encircling Sifrei Torah pay homage to their Divine Author, acknowledging that the purpose of Torah is to direct us to God." Whether we are circling the Torah or circling God, there are two mathematical facts about circles that have great theological implications.
 
The first is that all points on the circle are equidistant from the center.
 
When we march in the hakafot, we are demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, equally, and that we all have equal access to God.
 
There is a beautiful Midrash about the arba minim that illustrates this idea. Consider the etrog, or citron. It has a good taste and a good fragrance, symbolizing the Jews who possess scholarship and good deeds.
 
The lulav, or date palm branch, has a good taste, but no fragrance. It symbolizes Jews who possess scholarship, but few good deeds.
 
The hadassim, or myrtle, have a pleasant aroma but a bland taste. It represents the Jews who perform good deeds but are ignoramuses.
 
And finally, the aravot, or willow, have no pleasant smell or taste, standing for those among us who, sadly, have no redeeming features whatsoever.
 
Only the etrog is "perfect," but one cannot recite the blessing on the etrog alone. It must be held tightly together with the other three species in order to fulfill the mitzvah. God wants us to stand together. No one has to be excluded from His Presence. You can be a Moses, an Abraham, a Rabbi Akiva or an ignoramus who isn't even a very nice person. As long as you stand in that circle, you have the same access to God and His Torah as anyone else.
 
The second mathematical fact about circles is that the starting point and the ending point are one in the same. When we march in a circle we keep returning to where we started, as opposed to marching in a line where we would move away from the beginning point. The whole of Judaism is predicated on this concept -- that our history is not far behind us in some distant past, but that our heroes and heroines, and all of our collective experiences, are very real to us today.
 
We look to Jacob to learn how to survive an oppressive exile, and Joseph shows us how to deal with success in exile. Queen Esther ably demonstrates how to outsmart a manipulative, deadly enemy. Rashi is not some scribbles on a page, but he is our best friend when we study the Chumash or Talmud, patiently helping us make sense of it all.
 
We don't "commemorate" the destruction of our Temple; we sit low to the ground and mourn the loss as if it happened in our own generation. We sit at a seder every Passover with the goal of feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt, not some group of slaves thousands of years ago. We have a State of Israel today because even after 1,900 years of exile, we felt inextricably connected to that land. Like a circle, we never move too far away from where we started.
 
Physically, moving in circles like Ruby the hamster is a frustrating experience. In short, it gets us nowhere. But philosophically, participating in hakafot, can bring us to a new place. A place where we reconfirm that God and His Torah are at the center of our lives; where we rekindle that sense of unity and equality among all Jews; and where we reawaken the past, and immerse in the lives and events that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years.
 
In short, it brings us full circle.
 
Chag sameach.
 


Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

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