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Simchat Torah Tales

Chag Sameiach and mo’adim l’simcha! Today is a minor festival called Hoshanah Rabbah, seventh day of Sukkot, which itself is the great holiday of thanksgiving, gratitude and guests. I hope you have taken some time this week to sit in a sukkah, do the blessings for lulav and etrog and thank God for the beautiful natural world we inhabit and enjoy. This is the z'man simchateinu, the season of our joy, a time to celebrate life. On Sukkot we eat, drink, invite friends into our sukkahs and give thanks to God for all that we have.

We are nearing the conclusion of the long Jewish fall festival season, the solid month filled with Jewish holidays serious and joyous, from Selichot to Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur and on to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and, finally, Simchat Torah. The Jewish calendar month of Tishrei is an embarrassment of riches, and soon we will complete this long fall festival season and put the extreme holiday experience of Judaism behind us.

But before that happens, for traditional Jews outside of Israel, tonight and tomorrow are the festival of Shemini Atzeret, 8th Day of Assembly for Sukkot and an independent holiday when we say the blessing for rain, Geshem, and lovingly remember our ancestors one more time with Yizkor prayers. And tomorrow night and Tuesday will be Simchat Torah, the celebration of Torah, the wonderful festival when we complete the reading of the Torah and began all over again from Breisheet, Genesis. Reform Jews and all Jews in Israel combine these two festivals into one over-the-top final festive day for the fall, Atzeret-Simchat Torah.

A favorite anecdote about Simchat Torah, a story that goes back to when I was living in Jerusalem, attending Hebrew Union College as a rabbinical student. Having grown up knowing the American version of Simchat Torah as a wide-open, musical, fun festival, on the night of Simchat Torah my classmates and I went looking for a good party: dancing with the Torah, loud singing, good tunes and a schnapps or two to celebrate. What we discovered is that just isn't the way Jerusalemites celebrate Simchat Torah.

After wandering the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in search of revelry—we found a couple of decent Torah readings and plenty of stately hakafot, Torah processionals, but no real parties—we decided to try the ultra-Orthodox area of Mea She'arim. Again, no parties, no Jews dancing in the streets, none of the festivities we associated with Simchat Torah here in America. In fact, it was downright sedate, boring.

Finally, having found a bottle or two of Arak liquor along the way, we decided to create our own Simchas Torah celebration, and the group of us began singing and dancing in the middle of a quiet intersection at the entrance to Mea She'arim. We worked up enough enthusiasm to attract younger Orthodox Jewish guys and some kids willing to dance with the meshugenah American revelers, singing Ki Hem Chayeinu and Hoshiah et Amecha and other Torah songs, dancing in a big circle, living it up Jewishly.

We were finally having a truly good time when we heard a plop on the pavement near us; then another, and then another. And we realized that the irritated neighbors living nearby were literally pelting us with fruit—but they were throwing their leftover etrogim, citrons from the holiday of Sukkot, very valuable for that week but useless now. They didn't need the etrogs anymore, so they were tossing them at the crazy Americans who were disturbing their Simchat Torah sleep. What a unique way to connect the fall festival cycle... Only in Jerusalem!

May you be blessed with joyous final days of the fall festival season, and a year of goodness, gratitude, health and happiness.

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