While all of the Jewish holidays pose particular challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, Simchat Torah may be the most diminished. The central ritual of this holiday includes actions that are potential spreaders of the virus: loud singing and packed in dancing. How can we possibly celebrate the holiday in a safe way?
Our answer at Adath is to plan an outdoor Torah service on Simchat Torah, Sunday, October 11 at 11:00 AM. If the weather cooperates we will gather in the open air for socially distanced hakafot (Torah processions). Live instrumental music will accompany us as we march outside without singing or dancing. It won’t be as much fun as what we are used to, but it may be more in line with the original custom. After all, hakafah literally means a circuit, to walk around or encompass, as we put Torah at the center of our gathering.
At our outdoor service we will read from the Torah safely as we finish the book of Deuteronomy and begin again with Genesis. So we will be able to experience some of the traditions of Simchat Torah in a modified form. This year, I hope, we will also take a moment to think about how we can, in other ways, make Torah the central focus of our lives.
What does Torah mean to you? How do you study it, live it? There are so many creative ways that we can apply our talents and creativity to the endeavor of Torah. One example is the Torah Stitch by Stitch project created a few years ago by a Canadian woman. It is a collaborative effort to fashion a cross stitched tapestry of the entire five books of Moses by people all over the world. Jews, Christians, Muslims, nonbelievers and everyone in between have contributed to the project by stitching 4 verses in Hebrew along with their own illuminations of the text.
The result is a beautiful, homey and profound statement on the power of the Torah. Cross stitch is really a fascinating form with a seeming amateur simplicity combined with a digital, pixelated, almost hi-tech quality. In some ways it’s the perfect medium for our times and for the timeless Torah: at once bespoke and futuristic, authentic yet fashionable.
Torah Stitch by Stitch is also a great effort for the coronavirus pandemic. While part of the Torah has been put on display, the work is unfinished but is ongoing during the pandemic; one artisan even created a panel depicting the virus. Everyone can complete their piece in the safety of their own home and the Canadian government has even given the project a recent grant “to keep Seniors meaningfully engaged”.
Walking through the giant Torah tapestry would be a wonderful Simchat Torah exercise. In fact it is the inverse of our normal ritual. Usually our dancing circles surround the Torah, while the massive cross stitched text envelopes the viewer. This year we will have to settle for pictures on the Internet, a small glimpse at the potential of collective creativity around our most sacred possession.