Friday, September 30, 2011

Simchat Torah

Tanta Golda,
Would you please explain what Simchat Torah is? I keep getting confused with another one, but I can’t remember which!
Already Confused
My darling Already,
I’m happy to explain Simchat Torah! Simchat Torah literally means “rejoicing in the Torah.” It is a day when we celebrate reading the very last bit of the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, and begin reading the first book - Genesis, all over again! 

Sometime in the 8th century, people more learned than Tanta Golda, established the one year cycle of reading the Torah. Before that, some communities, especially those living in Palestine, spread it out over three years, while the Babylonian Jews did it in one.

It is a very joyous occassion, marked most notably by removing the Torah(s) from the Ark and carrying them around the synagogue 7 times. It is great fun, and an honor, to help with this hakafot (circuit). Often songs are sung and flags are waved. My sources speculate that the reason for the flags has to do with a connection with the twelve tribes, each of which had their own banner to mark their area of encampment.

In some congregations all the children who have not yet reached bat/bar mitzvah age are called up for a group aliyah. A tallis - or several - is spread over their heads, and the rabbi gives them a special blessing. This symbolizes the joy of study we want all our youth to have. 

Some liken Simchat Torah to the joy one feels at a wedding, in fact the person who reads from Deuteronomy is called the chatan Torah, the bridegroom of the Torah, and the person who reads from Genesis is called the chatan Bershit, the bridegroom of Genesis.

Simcaht Torah closes out the High Holy Day season which begins at Rosh Hashannah, and continues through Yom Kippur and Sukkot - when we dwell under a sukkah for 7-8 days celebrating the harvest - but that’s another column!

May you all be written in the Book of Life for a sweet, round year! Tanta Golda

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It's Time to Return

Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that the High Holy Days are coming up and I was wondering, what is the big deal about ‘returning’? We sing a song about returning and everything. I mean, are we joyful because some people return to Temple for the holidays? It seems odd to make such a big deal about this.
Nefesh Nettie
My lovely Nefesh,
Let me start by saying, we’re always glad to see our brothers and sisters at services, but no, we’re not singing about them. Just because they rarely call and never write...oh wait, that’s Tanta Golda’s grandchildren.
On a serious note: During the month of Elul - the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we are supposed to take time to reflect back on the year and thing about what we could improve upon. This self reflection opens us up to recognizing that there are people we have wronged. (No, don’t try to justify it, you shouldn’t have called your brother a ‘stupid head’. Name calling isn’t nice.) This month is considered a propitious time to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged.
This process of repentance, asking forgiveness is called teshuvah, which literally means “return”. Where are we returning to? We are returning our souls to a state of cleanliness. It is a way of restoring balance to our relationships with the people in our lives and with G-d.
Now, some people, who’s names I won’t mention, are under the impression that one is squared up by just showing up at High Holy Day services. This is not the case. One must 1. admit that you’ve wronged someone, 2. feel sincere remorse, 3. do everything you can to make things right, and 4. really intend never to commit that offense again.
For wrongs we commit against people we are obligated to approach them and ask their forgiveness. This is no easy task! Tanta Golda has found it easier with family, but in her many years on the planet she has to admit that she has not done such a good job of doing this with others! 
Now, any sane person would ask, “What if I get my nerve up to go ask forgiveness and the person says ‘no!’” Well, my naughty Nefesh, you are supposed to ask 3 times...3! If they don’t forgive you after the third time, you’re off the hook and the ‘sin’ is on them - as long as your request for forgiveness was sincere. 
So, you can’t go ask your sister to forgive you for borrowing her clothes without permission if you know in your heart that you’re probably going to do it again - that’s not sincere repentance. If you know that your little brother is going to be annoying again, and you will probably give yourself permission to call him names, asking him to forgive you for calling him a doofus just doesn’t cut it as doing teshuvah!
Teshuvah - returning is hard. Tanta Golda’s advice is, if someone comes to you to ask for forgiveness, think about how much it took for them to come to you, be a mench, and forgive them.
L’Shanah Tova Tikun Tevu! May you be written in the Book of LIfe for a good year! TG