One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mother’s father being in synagogue with me on Simchat Torah. The rabbi always called the hakafot (processions around the synagogue with people carrying Torah scrolls) by age and my grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, who was born in Russia, was in the first one. I don’t remember him as a particularly religious man (he died when I was 10), but I will never forget the joy on his face when he carried the Torah around the synagogue.
Simchat Torah was (as it still is in many places) the occasion for the Consecration ceremony for students beginning their religious school studies. We were all called up to the bimah for a blessing, and then we each received a miniature Torah. The small gold or blue boxes containing the small scrolls were piled up on the steps to the bimah.
When I was six, I must confess, I came back into the empty sanctuary after the service was over and helped myself to as many of the remaining miniature Torahs as I could carry. I cannot remember how I hid this larcenous deed from my parents, but I stashed the contraband in the bottom draw of my bedroom night table where they remained for many years.
When I pilfered those scrolls, Torah study was not what I had in mind as a professional pursuit (I planned to be the Catcher for the New York Yankees), but I hope the Almighty will consider my rabbinical career to be suitable penance.
The scrolls certainly came in handy in later years.
During the meal at the first communal Seder I conducted at my congregation in Columbia, MD, I remembered to my horror that I had forgotten (and no one on the committee had thought of it either) to buy a prize for the young person who found the afikomen (the piece of matzah hidden and looked for after the meal by the children present). While everyone ate, I quickly drove the mile to our house and grabbed a miniature scroll to give to the winner. I don’t think I have ever revealed that I was making a young boy or girl party to my trafficking in stolen goods.
On Simchat Torah we read the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately begin again to read the opening lines of Genesis. Even when I was six the message came through: the study of Torah never ends.
As years have gone by I consider it increasingly remarkable that we have a special celebration just to honour study and learning!
While meeting to prepare for our celebration here in Bad Segeberg this year, the make up of the planning committee necessitated translating our respective ideas into German, Russian and English!
Much of our discussion revolved around how to honor members of the local Christian community who raised funds to purchase the Torah scroll from which we shall read and did so much in other ways to help the Bad Segeberg Reform congregation re-establish itself.
As we worship in freedom in the beautiful synagogue that sits proudly not far from the center of town, I will give thanks for the opportunity to help to replant the love and learning of Torah in the land of my father’s birth where evil forces sought to uproot our precious heritage.
I will also rejoice that a sizeable number of Russian Jews have found freedom here in Germany to practice our faith that the communists tried to stamp out.
Yes, a celebration conducted in Hebrew, English, German and Russian seems such a wonderful way to honor the Torah and all of the ideals for which it stands!