I am dripping with sweat when the room begins to shake. Feet stomp, bodies jolt, and voices of every pitch meet in rhythmic unity. My head feels light and I nearly lose my balance. At first I’m just swaying and clapping my hands, but soon the energy of the room lifts me higher. Suddenly my arms are around two teenage girls I just met and we are jumping up and down, our feet hitting the ground to the downbeat of a chant I know well: Am Yisrael Chai (The people of Israel live).
Well, this is the wildest party I’ve been to in Israel yet…and it’s 10 am…and I’m in synagogue.
From the balcony, I look down at the vibrating crowd of black and white. Boys take turns sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, shouting out prayers that elicit a booming response from the crowd. The men begin to circle around the Torah, singing traditional melodies for the 7 hakafot (processions) of Shmini Atzeret (aka Simchat Torah).
This was my first time truly celebrating Shmini Atzeret, and I must say, it is my new favorite holiday. I’ll tell you why.
First, some quick background:
- Shmini Atzeret immediately follows the week-long holiday Sukkot, which is why it is called shmini (eight) atzeret (assembly). Thus, it is like the 8th day of Sukkot, though it has separate significance entirely.
- The number 8 represents infinity (because it is after 7, which is a full cycle of creation), reminding us that the Jewish nation, G-d, and the Torah are infinite.
- The holiday marks the conclusion of one annual cycle of torah reading and the beginning of the next cycle.
- The 7 hakafot (mentioned above) represent the 7 times Joshua led the Jewish people around the walls of Jericho before they fell. On a kabalistic, spiritual level, these hakafot symbolize the breaking down of our personal clipot (walls/shells) that prevent us from connecting with the divine.
- There are technically no commandments for this holiday; however, it is customary to party like its 1400 B.C.E!!!
- By that, I mean the streets are filled – both in the morning and the evening – with people who are “synagogue hopping,” which is, based on my experience, way more fun than any bar-crawl I’ve attended.
- The first round of dancing (synagogue hopping) went from 9:30 am – 12:30 pm and then resumed later in the evening. From around 8 pm – 11:30 pm, the entire city of Ra’anana congregated in the center of town. When people imagine what the Jewish state looks like, they probably imagine the events of Shmini Atzeret in Ra’anana: one large hora—of every type of Jew—winding through the empty city streets. Everyone is smiling uncontrollably and even the most secular of Jews are proud to be Jewish. While gripping the torah and shaking your booty simultaneously, it’s hard not to be.
Mitzvah g’dolah lehiyot b’simcha tamid. (It is a great commandment to always be in a state of happiness).
This is one of the songs that repeated throughout the day, and is a teaching of the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It is almost silly in its simplicity, but it really resonates with me. In fact, the song seems to be following me everywhere I go. I downloaded a version of it a while back, then heard it all throughout my magical weekend in Tzfat, and have continued to hear it ever since.
I love this teaching because the important mitzvah of rejoicing is so often overlooked in Judaism. People tend to see commandments as limiting or restrictive, which has a negative connotation. Rabbi Nachman, and many Chassidic masters before and after him, argue that when we are happy (in the deepest, least superficial sense), we are much more capable of serving G-d.
It’s a self-sustaining cycle: Yehudim (Jews) = those who thank (from the word lehodot) = gratitude --> meaningful, lasting happiness --> better able to thank/serve G-d --> more grateful --> happier (etc.)
This is not to say we should pretend to be happy all the time—that would be destructive and insincere. Rather, Rabbi Nachman empowers us to turn our frustration and suffering into vehicles for kedusha (sanctity, holiness). Easier said than done, no doubt, but it’s a good goal to keep in mind.
Indeed, this holiday came at the perfect time for many of us in the Garin. While we held each other’s sweaty hands and jumped for hours on end, we recorded the memory in our minds and stored it in an easy-access file. We know that it will be hard to reach joy at this level during the challenging and mundane day to day army life—a reality that is soon approaching.
So as I danced with the random policeman who joined our joyful circle, my friend on my right wearing his cap and handcuffs, the absurdity of the situation dissolved into sense of rightness and belonging. I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
When I gave a presentation a few days before on Golda Meir – standing next to her grave on Har Herzl in Jerusalem – I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
When I sat with my Garin—in the middle of the Mitzpe Ramon desert crater—listening to nothing but the faint echo of our breaths, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
These fleeting moments of simcha will not fade with time because they have become a part of me. They are laying the foundation for who and what I want to become as I enter this new phase of my life as an Israeli Jew.
So now that the holidays are over, the real test begins. How can I take the joy, spirit, and sense of unity achieved during the holidays into everyday life?
Stay tuned ;)
|Leading a musical end-of-Sukkot Chag service|
|When the policeman joined the dancing |
|A holy conga-line|