The fall is a time of endings and beginning. The cycle of the year begins anew. Summer ends, and school begins. We say goodbye to old friends and make new friends. New-ness permeates everything we do. We even begin anew, with another year of the Torah reading cycle.
In our early childhood classrooms, and in our synagogues, on Simhat Torah (literally “rejoicing with the Torah”), we parade, dance, and sing with the Torah scrolls. We celebrate the completion of the year just past, a year filled with reading and learning from the Torah, and now, celebrate the year ahead where we will continue once again the joyous task of reading and learning. The Sefer Torah—a Torah Scroll, contains the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible. It is the holiest object for Jews.
There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15)
In this midrash (Rabbinic story) the sages tell us that there are different ways to interpret the Torah, to access its message, and to gain understanding from a literal reading to deep insight. The Torah is the starting point of our understanding of Judaism and of creating a Jewish identity. All of us, including children, can find our unique face in the Torah. This discovery helps lead to a deeply personal Jewish identity.
The Torah has both an inside and outside. Children know the outside. We honor the Torah by the beautiful covers that cover the scrolls, the silver crowns, and other adornments. But it is the inside, the words that are written in the Torah scrolls, where we find the core of Judaism. How do we help children to understand their faces in the Torah, and help them to find meaning and relevance for themselves in these words, written thousands of years ago?
On Simhat Torah, seven times, we parade around the synagogue with our flags and dance and sing with the Torahs. A Torah parade is called a hakafah—a circling. Since seven is a more manageable number, let’s use the seven hakafot of Simhat Torah to find seven faces of the Torah, seven ways for young children to find meaning in the Torah. What can the Torah tell them?
Hakafah #1—Listen to the Torah – The first story in the Torah tells how God created the world. When God was finished making the world, it was time for Shabbat. This is the face of the Torah that shows we believe in a world of order and beauty where everything is good. This is the face of awe – where young senses experience the magnificence of the world in which they live.
Hakafah #2—Listen to the Torah – The Torah tells us the story of Abraham and Sarah and that they were the first Jewish people. This is the face of belonging to something larger than our families. What might that mean to children? It is the beginning of a belief in God and/or community.
Hakafah #3—Listen to the Torah—The Torah tells us about special Jewish days – Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. This is the face of celebrating our shared story. It connects children to the Jewish community with memories and gives them rituals and traditions as varied as the children with whom we spend our days. In our schools and with our school community, we help them to create their own memories that attach them to Jews near and far.
Hakafah #4—Listen to the Torah—The Torah tells us that there are special mitzvot for Jewish people to do that make us Jewish. We celebrate Shabbat and holidays, wear a tallit, keep kosher, and say brakhot and prayers. We teach children to appreciate the joy in all the day-to-day experiences and help them to see the blessings in everything we do. This is the face of practice and tradition. It is in the doing that children become part of the Jewish community.
Hakafah #5 —Listen to the Torah—In the Torah, we read that God tells us there are special things that Jewish people do – to be kind to friends and neighbors, to give tzedakah, to keep our world clean, to help people who are hungry, to tell the truth, and to do tikun olam, making the world a better place. This is the face of tikkun olam, bringing wholeness to the world. Children learn that their actions can bring us to the better world envisioned in the Torah, that they are empowered to understand that they can make a difference in the world.
Hakafah #6 —Listen to the Torah—In the Torah, there are prayers to God. The Shema is in the Torah. The Shema teaches us to listen – to God and to each other. This is the face of there being something greater than us, of so many faces and so many people standing together and really listening to themselves, to others, and to God.
Hakafah #7—Listen to the Torah—In the Torah, God tells us that the land of Israel will always be a special place for Jewish people. This is the face of being part of a large community. It is the place of Torah stories and history—their history.
On Simhat Torah, as we finish reading the Torah and immediately start to read it from the beginning, we are reminded of the centrality of the Torah to Judaism. We need to find ways, faces, for young children to see this as well. Each of these hakafot is a face, a way for children to understand the Torah. Each of these faces is a way for children to discover a way to be Jewish. Each of these faces helps them to find meaning in being a part of the Jewish community. It is our responsibility to find ways for children and their families to see each of these faces and to find their Jewish path.