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The Book of the People

This coming Tuesday, Jewish congregations around the world will complete their annual cycle of public Bible readings and start the reading anew, and they will mark the moment with the raucous festival known as Simchat Torah, the “Joy of the Torah.” The holiday is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but none more poignant or timely than this: For that one moment, Jews of every stripe — hawk and dove, conservative and liberal, pious and free-thinking — will be, literally, on the same page.

It’s not, perhaps, the grandest or most solemn of holidays. It does not presume to match the solemnity of the Day of Atonement, the noble drama of Passover or even the hilarity of Purim. But it does have a miracle all its own, and it is one worth savoring. On this day, the People of the Book celebrate the book that made them a people.

Considering that it’s a celebration of sacred scripture, the day’s mood is astonishingly lighthearted. The central ritual, completing the last lines of Deuteronomy and then returning to the first lines of Genesis, is interrupted seven times by outbursts of singing, cheering and wild, hypnotic circle-dancing around and around the scrolls, usually lasting for hours. Children are given candied apples and carried about on their parents’ shoulders; adults, in most congregations, put away respectable quantities of scotch. It runs until late at night, then begins anew the next morning.

Most miraculous, the scene is nearly identical in every Jewish congregation around the world, from the most liberal to the most traditional. On this one day, Jews will set aside their endless squabbles and allow themselves, for 24 hours, to feel the same way about the same central symbol in their ever-contentious tradition.

No, the unity will not be complete. Israelis and Reform Jews will begin the festivities on Monday evening, traditional Jews in the Diaspora on Tuesday evening. Sephardic Jews, who read the Torah on a three-year cycle, will not be finishing the reading but merely celebrating the book itself. For that matter, most Jews probably won’t mark the day at all, except as they watch their children’s Sunday school preparations and, perhaps, remember their own.

But the combined impact of the day is larger than the numbers will indicate. In some parts of New York, Los Angeles, Moscow and other cities, entire thoroughfares will be closed off to make room for the thousands of merrymakers thronging the streets, dancing with their sacred scrolls.

What will they see in those scrolls? To begin with, they will see a gift passed down through countless generations, laying out the broad terms of the beliefs that define them as Jews and as moral human beings. They will see a text that has been passed on to countless other nations and religions, embodying a promise — and a challenge — to bring a day when human beings of every race and creed can learn to live together.

They will see a narrative of how the Jewish people came to be: the first moment of awareness of the infinite mystery and majesty that is our universe; the slave revolt that gave birth to the idea of freedom; the fiery prophetic visions of righteousness and social justice.

They will see a moral code that has been passed along through thousands of years and managed to retain its power to inspire. And although we live that code today in ways that differ dramatically, its central truths retain their overarching power. We value the day of rest from labor. We cherish the family. We value the individual worth of every human being. We proclaim the rights of the poor. We recognize the dangers of worshipping false idols.

These shared stories and common values continue to define us as a community and a people, wherever we live, however we vote and whatever color hats we wear. It is not only the symbols that we share, but their deepest meanings. After 3,000 years, this is no mean feat.




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