Story for Rejoicing with the Torah

Every Rosh Hashanah, something new is drawn into the World
For Simchat Torah

Several years ago we had Simchat Torah and it was raining. It was a difficult time, we were perched at the edge of war. There was a small group at the synagogue, we took out our borrowed Torah, and the moisture in the air raised an animal smell from the Torah scroll that drew me into the text. I popped into the story and walked around in it.

Simchat Torah fell that year on the first night when there was winter in the air. Cold. Rainy. We unrolled the Torah scroll on some long tables so everyone could look at it before we gathered the Torah scroll up in our arms and danced around the room.

Someone made a Torah joke, “I want to eat it,” quoting the Psalm (34:9), taste and see that God is good.

I felt that if I would have sat there longer, maybe a week, maybe two, and stared into the scroll, the entire story would have gobbled me up in a way I only at that moment felt in my bones.

We sat there with the Torah in front of us in silence, inching closer to the scroll, leaning in towards the skin spread out on the table between us. The jokes stopped, the children had strayed from the table but the adults stayed as if bound to the story in the scroll by invisible fibers of relation. We all felt the release and deep cleansing exhalation of meditation. We shed our separate skins and entered the story, drawn into the tale by the smell of it, the taste of it, the touch of it. I wondered if we were going to enter the story, step into it, how long would we sit before the tale simply drew us in like fire?

Perhaps we would pop into the story again, walk around in it for a while, and pop out.

Then it was Simchat Torah the next year, we had acquired our own Torah. After celebrating we sat quietly with the Torah, our new Torah, now the one we own, laid out on the table in front of us. A blanket of thoughtful silence covered all of us.

Again, something curious arose out of the Torah, something that is out of the Old Story the Scroll Story that drew us down into the text and into the dream where the Torah thrives. I felt it. The quiet I suppose is awe, isn’t that what awe is, to be surprised into silence? Maybe it was the death of Moses, the sadness of the ending story, the stream of consciousness of those last few lines, the story accelerating as it does into an ending but not closure. A seam.

I had written a story about S, the angel who wanted the song I sang, the Arabic holy chant. I sang the song onto her answering machine, then I stopped singing the song. I felt like a minstrel, a peace minstrel, a PC minstrel, and I couldn’t sing the song anymore because I was angry and scared and wondering if it was true. I even rewrote the story and turned the chant into a song “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” and I began to sing that, because it’s easier, but it’s another song.

I had been in the very places that were then erupting. I went there alone. In 1995 I took a break and went to study music in Israel. I studied Arabic music with a master of the oud. I drove three hours from Jerusalem every week to an Arab town in the north where I sat with my master and listened for the sound that is common to us both. We met only in the music and that became our language.

There have been many Jewish and Arab masters of the oud, but it is certainly the music of Abraham, from a place before the separations, before the alienation of Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. I suppose that is why I went there, to play from a place deeper than the divisions. I heard it in my blood in my bones, it was a mystery to me how why I heard it but I heard it and I went to learn it at the source.

There was a great master of the oud in the Negev near Beer Sheva who played for the court of the King of Morocco. The present King of Morocco personally invited him back, an offer he extended to all the Jews of Morocco, but few returned.

I had written about my experiences in a series of stories I call the Oud Stories. What do I do with them? I didn’t know how to integrate my own experience just then. I was playing the instrument but some of the songs I couldn’t sing. In rabbinical school, I took a year and studied Arabic, again I wanted the source connection that I felt in the holy texts I was reading, the deep level of rootedness that connects us, the commentaries of Saadia on the mystical texts written in Arabic, the Rambam writing in Arabic, I wanted to read them in the original. I did and I found it and I felt it and I learned it and it was correct. Sometimes I am aching with my own knowledge now, I don’t know what to do with it.

Maybe I know too much, maybe I know too little.

Just before Simchat Torah we usually have the Nachmuna, celebrating Rebbe Nachman, the first Jewish modernist story guide master. The year I am remembering, we set up the tables in a large rectangle with smaller tables around the perimeter. We sat in the center with no music stand, only a small table behind us, after three tunes my voice opened like a human flower and my sidekick and I played effortlessly and passionately for about two hours. Rebbe Nachman sat in the corner smiling.

That year we held the Nachmuna again during the intermediate days of Sukkot on Saturday night.

I made up a song about Rebbe Nachman, with a simple accompanying minor seventh riff, describing the life and work and lift of Rebbe Nachman. I told the whole story in song, including a fragment of his last unfinished story, which we have put to music, called “the great heart of the world.”

We made the slow-hand havdalah somewhat in the Shlomo style that I love, and after we were finished we packed up our instruments and on the way out to our chariots, my sidekick said, “I haven’t done the mitzvahs of the Sukkah yet.” I gathered the lulav and etrog out of my space van.

With my two sidekicks, we went into the Sukkah and in St. Louis, Missouri, under the middling Sukkot moon, the waning, we performed the two mitzvahs of spending a time there and of the four species. We talked about the elusive third mitzvah, joy, and the limitation of helping each other with that. But I was wrong. Completely wrong. It was the third one we could help each other with the most, and I felt it underneath the middling Sukkot moon. I knew it just as I was speaking the opposite idea. “I don’t know a darn thing about ‘ach sameach’ [entirely joyous],” I said, but what I felt was just the opposite. I felt, for that moment, underneath the moon with my two pals, completely joyous. I forgot everything and I had fulfilled the three mitzvahs just as the tradition prescribes.

We then welcomed the guests, the seven shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. They entered from all sides, I noticed that none of them came in through the front opening. Each one of them had something to teach, which I have written in another story, but here is a synopsis: Abraham spoke about love, Isaac spoke about discipline, Jacob spoke elegantly about beauty, Moses spoke about bravery (his was a long discourse), Aaron spoke about dignity, Joseph spoke about stick-to-it-tive-ness basically, and David spoke about acceptance.

I wrote a story called my favorite Sukkot teaching about the moon as a metaphor for what is new and Godly that is drawn into the world this time of the year, the wisdom the Godliness the newness that plumps with the moon. We begin to draw something wonderful, something Godly, something holy, something that hasn’t been here before into the world every Rosh Hashanah, when it is hidden, like the moon.

We are now past the full moon of Sukkot as I am revisiting this story — still hidden. But not entirely.

addendum to Simchat Torah

I went to sleep but couldn’t stay there. What I call my mind was not delivered into the calm, I knealt at the delta but the elusive alpha and omega of sleep was lost to me, not forever, just until I finished this.

I re-read the last piece I wrote, thinking about the chase for something pure and absolute in the music and cultures that I have gone to the sources to study. I couldn’t grasp myself, my understanding, the hard tutorial of my own life. And peace, the most elusive notion of all, beyond my control for sure but even beyond my ken.

I picked up the reading which I often save for late at night. I read, then tried to put myself to sleep with meditation, the “being alone together” as Rebbe Nachman called it. I couldn’t sleep.

I picked up the New York Times and read the most recent installment of a series called Writers on Writing: “After Twenty Years, Meditation Still Conquers Inner Space,” by Alice Walker.

Here is the ending:

Heaven. Now there’s a thought. Nothing has ever been able, ultimately, to convince me we live anywhere else. And that heaven, more a verb than a noun, more a condition than a place, is still about leading with the heart in whatever broken or ragged state it’s in, stumbling forward in faith until, from time to time, we miraculously find our way. Our way to forgiveness, our way to letting go, our way to understanding, compassion and peace.

It is laughter, I think, that bubbles up at last and says, “Ho, I think we are there.” And that “there” is always here.

I am wild for sleep now, good night.

jsg, usa