Thursday, October 4, 2012

The "honor" of holding the Torah

The holiday of Sukkot (Sukkos) began Sunday evening and lasts through next Sunday. It's definitely the most unusual holiday of the year. In shul, you take four plants, a Luluv (palm branch), an Etrog (citron), Hadas (mertle) and Aravot (willow branches), put them together and shake them. Then you take a Torah scroll out of the ark and march around it with your plants in a procession calling out "Hoshana" (save us). This Hoshana ceremony is as powerful as it is mysterious.

Just when I thought I knew everything about the obligations of being an avel (mourner), I learned that as a mourner, I don't get to participate in this procession. Instead, I get to hold the Torah. Or, if another mourner holds the Torah, I just stand there chanting along. Everyone else marches around. I didn't ask why I'm excluded but it's not too difficult to figure out: the procession is an expression of joy from which I, as a mourner, am excluded.

Holding the Torah while everyone else parades around is a perfect metaphor for the status of an avel in shul. You are singled out and made the focus of attention. You are called upon to lead prayers and say kaddish. Everyone is aware of your status as a mourner. There's no hiding it. The congregation responds to your words, whether you're davening or saying kaddish.

But while you're made a focal point, you are not fully part of the community. You don't participate in joyful activities. You don't lead prayers on the Sabbath or holidays. The mourner is at once honored and dishonored.

And so I was "honored" to hold the Torah. It's not a dubious honor. It's a real honor, but an honor whose origins lay in my very exclusion from the community of celebrators.

But it all makes sense in some way. The death of a parent may cause a rupture in your relationship with God. And so you are forced to get closer to God's revelation, the Torah. You hold the Torah either because, as a mourner, your pain somehow makes you closer to it or because your are forced to confront your distance from it. The possibility of escaping your sorrow into a experience of elation is denied. No dancing to the music or marching to shouts of salvation.

But, oh Lord, I want to be in that number . . .

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