From the Inner Circle to the Outer Circle: Sanctifying our Relationship with God
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
We are involved in hakafot – literally forming circles – throughout the festival of Sukkot, the final leg of the “three-legged stool” of the High Holidays.
Rosh Hashana is the day on which we coronate God as our King; Yom Kippur is all about our engagement with God from a sense of awareness and reconciliation. But the final act of our engagement with God comes over Sukkot, as we validate our relationship with Him with intimacy and joy. Whereas on Yom Kippur, only one person, the High Priest, enters into the Holy of Holies, on the festival of Sukkot, we bring God into the huts that we build, we welcome Him into our own abode.
Throughout the festival of Sukkot we walk around the bimah with the Four Species in hand, encircling the Torah. This action is consistent with the idea in Judaism that circling something represents concretizing our relationship with the object in the center.
We see this when Yehoshua and the Jewish people march around Jericho seven times; Avraham is told to do this with the Land of Israel; we did this when we wanted to add to the boundaries of Jerusalem or the Temple Mount; and we continue to do this at weddings, as the bride encircles the groom under the wedding canopy, shattering any metaphorical walls standing between them and formalizing their relationship. As such, throughout the holiday of Sukkot, we encircle the Torah to show the sanctity of our relationship to it.
But by the end of Sukkot, on the joyous climax of Simchat Torah, we see something very interesting during the final series of hakafot. Instead of the Torah remaining in the center of the circle, it is brought into the circle itself. We carry it, we sing and dance with it, and we rejoice.
What is left in the center of the circle is just an empty space – which represents God. Because essentially, the Torah is not an end in and of itself; rather, it is a means to an end, it is the way through which we may establish a special relationship with God.
So while we launch the holiday of Sukkot with the Torah in the center and perform our hakafot all around it, by the end the holiday we have incorporated it into ourselves. And if Torah is truly a means to an end, it must not be weaponized – causing disgrace of God – but rather used as an influencer. Torah is sweet, and as we all know it can inspire us and all those who come into contact with it.
We live in hectic times and we are all very busy. May the upcoming hakafot of Simchat Torah provide each of us with the opportunity to reflect on how, in our daily and communal activities, we can find sacred moments in time with the Torah and use it as a platform to find personal sacred moments in time with God, as well as to carefully ensure its use in the public square, allowing Torah to sanctify and inspire others.