Monday night, we ate in the sukkah of old and dear friends. They had a few other families over and one guest described the experience of living in Israel so well, it bears repeating. The joy of being a Jew living in Israel is not a non-stop feeling of ecstasy, for who can sustain that? The joy of living in Israel is having a sense of shleimut, of wholeness, of contentedness, knowing that you are where you belong. That sounded exactly right to me.
Tuesday morning, we were privileged to return to Ben Gurion Airport to welcome more family Home. Their aliyah is a miracle to me. Although we are related through a marriage that did not last, we remained close over the years. We lived a block apart in Baltimore and, for the past decade, we spent countless Shabbat meals discussing the merits of life in Israel over life in the US.
Tuesday afternoon, we ate our last meal in our sukkah and I was surprised by the tears that sprang up in my eyes upon reciting the brief prayer for taking one's leave from the sukkah: "May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that just as I have fulfilled the mitzvah and dwelled in this Sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the Sukkah of the skin of the Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem." I have never before felt so indescribably emotional at the end of Sukkot.
WARNING: This rest of this post contains sadness.
And then came Simchas Torah. In Israel, Simchas Torah and Shemini Atzeret are the same day. For as many years as I have been observant, I have had a painful relationship with Simchas Torah. It all started 21 years ago when, during my first year living as a Torah-observant Jew, I experienced the shock of my first Simchas Torah.
As I did before every new Jewish experience that first year, I read all about the observance of Simchas Torah in advance. The books I read proclaimed joyously that, "On Simchas Torah, everyone gets an aliyah! Everyone gets to dance with the Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah!" So, in my innocence, I assumed that meant everyone gets to dance with the Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah.
I went to the synagogue in happy anticipation. When the evening service was done and the mechitza was rolled away to make a large space for dancing, my excitement increased.
And then I noticed that all the women pulled out folding chairs, poured themselves cups of Diet Coke and began to chat among themselves while the men danced with the simcha of the Torah.
My disappointment was enormous. My sadness was deep. My resentment was huge.
Over the next few years, I tried to cope in creative ways. One year, I organized a women's circle in my home during the hakafot. A few dozen women came to share Torah thoughts with one another. The next week, the rabbi of that community spoke about how men dancing with the Sifrei Torah are bringing down kedusha from the Heavens and that the women must be there to receive it or else their dancing is in vain. After that, the women were unwilling to leave the shul during hakafot.
One year, I tried to organize women's hakafot in a completely separate, private location. I called a dozen or more Orthodox rabbis in Baltimore to borrow a Sefer Torah, but not a single rabbi would lend us one. And not a single rabbi could give me a reason that was any more compelling than, "It's not done." And, to add to my pain, many of the people I spoke to in those years, rabbis included, made me feel that there was something wrong with me for being unsatisfied with the status quo, for desiring something different.
So I started coping with Simchas Torah by pretending it wasn't happening. I successfully avoided attending shul on Simchas Torah for the next several decades by entering a kind of self-imposed Simchas Torah coma.
In the week leading up to Simchas Torah in Israel, I started re-experiencing all the old, traumatic feelings of resentment. "Why do Orthodox men act like they own the Sefer Torah?" I decried to anyone who would listen. Even in places where women might have a chance to dance with a Sefer Torah, one often hears that, "In such and such a place, the rabbi gives women a Sefer Torah." Again, proprietary, for men can only give women a Sefer Torah if they regard it as theirs to give.
Thus, with a heart full of ambivalence, I went to shul last night. This was my first Simchas Torah in shul in many, many years. I'd like to say that the whole experience, my first Simchas Torah in the Holy Land, was completely healing.
But that would not be true.
"If our women are good enough to carry our children for nine months, they're good enough to carry a Sefer Torah for a few minutes." - Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
Despite the fact that Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the spiritual inspiration for the Happy Minyan at which we daven here in Israel, permitted women to dance with a Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah, this is not what happened last night.
As expected, the men joyously sang and danced around the bima with children on their shoulders and Sifrei Torah in their arms while the women did one of three things: chatted, danced briefly and without much gusto or peered into the men's section to watch. Over the hour or so I was able to stay in shul without crying, I did all three, but I felt precious little simcha.
At one point, at the request of an elderly woman from the congregation, the mechitza was opened so the women could actually see the Sifrei Torah. Apparently, the mechitza opening coincided with a brief spurt of dancing on the women's side and I overheard one young man tell his mother that he was offended to have glanced over and seen women dancing. So apparently, it is not enough that women are denied the opportunity to hold and dance with the Sefer Torah. We must also be denied the opportunity to squeeze out some minuscule portion of our own simcha as we watch men cradling the Sifrei Torah we all love but do not have equal access to. If given the opportunity, I would like to ask this young man just how much simcha he would feel if he was in my shoes.
One friend told me she likes hakafot less and less each year. She doesn't want to feel resentful, so she asks Hashem to remove her feelings of resentfulness. It's far from ideal, but it's an emotional/spiritual place I can aspire to be and I'm glad she shared those words with me.
I skipped shul this morning and prayed at home. In the afternoon, I attended a Simchas Torah luncheon with 150 members of our congregation, during which I listened to some heartfelt words of Torah about a holiday I absolutely could not relate to. The holiday he described does not exist anywhere in the realm of my experience. I spent most of the rest of the day at home learning midrashim related to the first parsha of the Torah, in which Gd creates all life.
I'm convinced that there is something fundamentally flawed in the way we observe this chag. How can a chag that is supposed to be the epitome of simcha (joy) be so atzuv (sad) for so many?
My older daughter who is a thousand times more committed to formal tefillah than I am, explained simply that, "Simchas Torah is a man's holiday." She spent the day avoiding it almost as completely as I did, but she did so seemingly without pain.
In the future, I should probably lower my expectations for the day to, I don't know, let's say, zero. I must tell myself that all the flowery talk about the day and its spiritual potential simply don't apply to me.
There are so very many things I love about being a Jew in Israel.
Regrettably, Simchas Torah cannot be counted among them.