Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Simchat Torah

Voices lifted in song, they take turns clutching the Torah scrolls to their chests as they dance through the aisles of the synagogue. Spinning, hopping on one foot and then the other. Eyes closed. Spinning, spinning.

A year ago, I spent my first Shabbat with the congregation Tikvat Yisrael in Richmond on Simchat Torah, the most joyful day of the Jewish liturgical calendar, and now my favorite Jewish holiday. I arrived a few minutes late to the 10 o'clock service (pretty early for a college-girl) and was a bit bewildered by the scene unfolding around me. It only took a moment, however, for me to be utterly captivated.

Simchat Torah comes on the heals of Sukkot, the festival in which Jews remember God's provision for them in the desert (see previous post). Of course, the pinnacle of their time in the desert was the meeting at Mt. Sinai, where God imparted His covenant and His Word. The tradition surrounding Simchat Torah, or "the Joy of the Torah," gives voice to a topic I've written about a lot recently: God's revelation. For Jews, and especially for our Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, the revelation of God is always cause for celebration and joy.

As I took everything in, one of the ushers approached me to explain that this celebration was part of the centuries old tradition of thanking God for the gift of His Word. He went on to say that because the Greek word Logos from John 1:1 can be translated Torah in Hebrew, the holiday takes on a special significance for Jews who embrace Jesus as Messiah. And then he said something I'll never forget. With a joy that penetrated to the depths of my heart, this dear man exclaimed, "Yeshua has become our Torah! The Torah dwells among us!"

As the Torah scrolls danced by my pew, those around me lovingly touched the scrolls and then kissed their hands (a practice that is not reserved solely for this holiday, but that occurs every Shabbat). I followed suit, completely swept up in the worship of the God who speaks powerfully to His people, the God who would lower Himself to dwell among us. As they danced we sang:

Hineh ha Torah!
Hineh Yeshua!
Hineh ha Torah!
Hineh Hu ba!

translation: "Behold the Torah! Behold Jesus! Behold the Torah! Behold He comes!"

Both the tradtion and the song are beautiful reminders that God has fulfilled His promise in Jeremiah 31:33 where He speaks through the prophet: "'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel at that time' declares the Lord. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." The word "law" here is the word Torah in Hebrew. So when Jesus proclaims that He has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He is saying that He is the one who will enact the New Covenant in which the law will be on the hearts of God's people. In Jewish understanding, as I have noted before, the lev, or "heart" is the seat of action and emotion. The implication, of course, is that if God's law is written on your lev, then everything you do will be influenced by Him. Messianic Jews recognize that the Torah is written on their leviym (hearts) in the person of Yeshua!

In non-Messianic synagogues, the words that are sung obviously do not revel in the provision of Jesus. Rather, the worshipers pray Ana Adonai, hoshia na, which translates "Oh Lord, save us." What's interesting about this prayer relates again to the Hebrew: the volative verb hoshia stems from the root yeshua, meaning "salvation." This is the Jewish name for Jesus. So even as they celebrate God's gift of the Torah removed from the One who has fullfilled it, non-Messianic Jews affirm their need for God's saving grace.

This year, Tikvat celebrated Simchat Torah on Wednesday, the actual day that culminates Sukkot. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I arrived at Tikvat this past Saturday morning, expecting to sing Hineh ha Torah. I had been thrilled to find that Homecoming weekend coincided with the day I thought my Messianic friends would celebrate the holiday that marks my first anniversary of worshiping with them. Nevertheless, my time with them was sweet as the scrolls were taken from the ark and danced around the room, and as we praised the God who has become our Torah.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John 1:1, 14


mowens said...

this is brilliant and beautiful, and carries with it so many implications for other passages. the one that immediately came to mind for me was matthew 5:17-18. in light of Christ being our Torah, how should we understand this statement?

Chelsea said...

Thanks! Yeah, I cited that, which means two things: 1.) you didn't read very thoroughly, and 2.) more positively, we think alike :)

mowens said...

oh, yeah, probably both.

Jason said...

Fascinating that the Jews who don't celebrate the new covanent are, in effect, crying out their need for such salvation! And even that the word they use means "God save us". Is that the same root word as "Hosanna" which the people sang to Jesus at the Triumphal Entry?

Chelsea said...

Great observation, Kelli! Yes, the words are related. I believe "Hosanna" is the Greek for "Hoshia na." So the Palestinian Jews of the first century understood that on Palm Sunday, they were really observing Simchat Torah--what a beautiful connection!! (And it probably explains why the religious authorities were so outraged...