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Simchat Torah: The Dance of White Fire

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After the yearly Torah reading cycle is completed on the morning of Simchat Torah, we immediately begin the cycle again by reading the beginning of Bereishit, recounting the creation of the world. This practice connects the end of the Torah with its beginning.

This ceremonial completion and immediate new beginning takes place following 14 circuits of joyous dancing and singing with the Torah, seven of which occur Simchat Torah night and seven which occur on Simchat Torah morning. While the Torah scroll is rolled from its end to its beginning (or a second Torah scroll is readied for use), we find ourselves in a very unique situation, a sort of spiritual no man's land, suspended somewhere between the end and the beginning. Although it only takes a few minutes to roll or ready the Torah scroll for use, symbolically speaking, these moments reflect an emotion that Simchat Torah is imbued with: a sense of anticipation. For during the entire three-week period since Rosh Hashanah we have been living in suspended animation, waiting for the new year to finally show its true face. Since this will finally happen on the day after Simchat Torah -- at the end of the holiday season -- we are now ready to conclude the Torah and begin reading it again.

The Midrash teaches that the letters of the Torah are like black fire engraved on parchment that is analogous to white fire (Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 280). To understand even a small part of the wisdom encoded in the black fire takes a life time; the wisdom engraved in the white fire is at present beyond human comprehension. On Simchat Torah we do not emphasize studying Torah. Instead we dance on the white fire as if all is an open book waiting to be revealed. This dancing connects us in a most profound way to the Torah as an Orchard of Delights.

The sense of suspended animation we are in is symbolized by our dancing for hours in circles with the Torah scrolls; this, in turn, recalls the verse from Job (26:6): "He hangs the world on nothingness." The numerical value of the Hebrew letters in this phrase is 913, the same as the numerical value of the Torah's first word, bereishit ("in the beginning"). Dancing at the beginning of a year full of promise, we are imbued with joy, trust and faith in what the new year will bring to us as individuals and as Jews. Although the script of the Torah is written and God has rendered and sealed our judgments for the upcoming year, Judaism firmly believes that in some sense the script is still blank as we all continue to write our own script every day of the year. Paradoxically, far from being closed books, our lives are open to change; we still have the ability to determine much of what we will experience in the upcoming year. This realization brings with it great joy and power, as we symbolically roll the Torah back to Bereishit and acknowledge our ability to choose to begin again.

The Talmud states that everything goes after the sealing (Berachot 12a). The manner in which we conclude any journey in life affects how we will remember it and how it will impact on our lives. Therefore, the Sages decided that we should conclude the yearly reading of the Torah and the High Holiday season with great joy and celebration, so that this energy would remain with us and carry over into the new year.

At one of the most climatic moments during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers, we declare that repentance, prayer and charity have the power to nullify negative decrees. Immediately following the Ten Days of Repentance, the joyous holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah teach us that joy also has the power to nullify negative decrees, wiping the slate clean and allowing a truly new year to begin.

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