That look in their eyes when, for the first time in their lives, Torah is placed in their arms, is precious.
In that moment, they realize that they are cradling the Jewish story. They recognize that what was once at arm’s length, is now quite literally in their arms. They become Moses or Miriam, or Michael or Mandy, standing again at Mt. Sinai, receiving Judaism’s most sacred text.
Each year on Simchat Torah, it happens.
After we unroll the entire Torah scroll around the sanctuary.
After we read the end of Deuteronomy.
After we review the five books of our people, highlighting the most poignant stories and Torah’s most abiding Jewish values.
After we return to the beginning again to read the opening words of Genesis.
Then, the celebration of Torah leads to Kabbalat Torah, the receiving of the gift of Torah: Those priceless moments when someone holds Torah from the first time and finds herself right there in shalshelet hakabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah.
Sometimes it is an older woman whose synagogue back then did not allow girls to become bat mitzvah. Or an Israeli secularist who once saw Torah as the province of only an entrenched Orthodox political establishment. Or a college student coming back to Judaism after dropping out too early. Or poignantly a Holocaust survivor who missed out on receiving Torah before the world darkened around him. Or a Jew by choice choosing to embrace a new people. Or a ger toshav, a non-Jew who has dedicated her life to raising their children in the Jewish faith. Or the multicultural Jew whose skin color once made her feel unwelcome in the synagogue. Or the older gay man who for the longest time thought he was written out of the story.
For each of them, the progression – so delicious – is similar. Always, it reaffirms the power and poignancy of our most sacred Jewish text.
First comes the worry, a split second of terror: Am I holding it right? Will I be the one to drop it? What happens if I drop it?
Then comes a reassuring sense of calm: I’ve got this. I can hold this. I am doing this.
Then the amazement: I have Torah in my arms. I am holding Torah. Me.
Then the dancing: Look at me. Torah and me. Together. As one. I am part of its story. And it’s story is part of me.
Round and round the Torah goes, in and out of the circle of dancers. In and out of the arms of the community. In and out of the lives of its adherents.
Some might come back for Torah study. Some might disappear until next Simchat Torah. But all leave refreshed and renewed, having once again stood at Sinai and received the Torah.
Some love the unrolling of Torah. Others value the return to the beginning. But me? I love those moments when the public becomes the personal and for yet another person Torah becomes “mine.”
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.