Dancing Inside and Outside Circles of Belonging

Contributor Tali Anisfeld shares their thoughts on Simchat Torah.

September 21, 2023

By Tali Anisfeld

When I think back to my early memories of Simchat Torah, the images that arise are not of wildly dancing or singing loudly from inside the hakafot (literally “circles” in which we dance and sing with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah). They are mostly memories of standing towards the edge, intrigued but also a bit uncomfortable, watching others in celebration from a distance. One of the questions that Simchat Torah always holds for me is this: what do we do when we find ourselves outside the circle? 

My Saba Moshe died on a still night in early October 2013, nine days after Simchat Torah. He died approximately 4,100 miles from where he had been born. I was fifteen, and lucky to be growing up just a few blocks away from him and my Savta – from their cooking, their books, their smells, and stories.

I have many vivid memories of my Saba, but only a few from the days before and after his death. One of those memories is of the last words of my dad’s hesped (eulogy) for his dad. It was a line of Rashi – my Saba was a real lover of Rashi and kept learning until his last days. The line invoked three words that Rashi imagines God saying to the Jewish people: “kasha alay preidatchem.” Your departure is hard on me. Then my dad spoke to his dad: “Aba, kasha alay preidatcha.” 

I’ve always remembered those words.

But I have never remembered the context for Rashi’s beautiful turn of phrase. In what moment does Rashi imagine God expressing longing for the people in this way? Recently, I looked back and was moved to learn that it comes from Rashi’s commentary on Shemini Azteret, the holiday at the very end of Sukkot. His commentary is rooted in a common Rabbinic question: why, after all the chagim, is there an additional day added on to the end of Sukkot? Rashi’s suggestion is simple, tender, and painfully human: God wanted to hold the people close for one more day. God couldn’t quite bear to be separated from the people just yet. Kasha alay preidatchem, God says. 

The root of the word preidah is the letters peh–resh–dalet. The root literally means to divide or separate. It’s used in the Torah in reference to the loss of friendship, a river dividing into its tributaries, children breaking away from their parents, and nations that branched from a common ancestor. 

I’ve often experienced an elusive sadness during Simchat Torah that this image helps me to understand. On Simchat Torah, we face an ending. We separate, finally, from the sacred season in which we have been held for over two months. And like so many endings – of a friendship, of a lifetime – it is hard to say goodbye. These are the pangs of a loved one leaving. Don’t go. Not quite yet. I want one more day with you.

But the deep ritual structure of Simchat Torah also teaches us that this goodbye is not really a goodbye at all. On this night, we roll to the very end of the Torah and chant its final words. And then, just moments later, we roll all the way back to the beginning and start again. There is even a tradition to chant the last and first verses of the Torah in the same breath. To fuse the split ends of our tradition with one warm, human, living breath. According to one Midrashic tradition, the last letter of the Torah – lamed – and the first letter of the Torah – bet – are read together to form the Hebrew word lev, meaning heart. This ritual is a balm to the human heart and the divine heart: just as soon as we go, we arrive again. In one moment, we say goodbye to Torah, and in the very same breath, we return and begin again. 

My Saba traversed many worlds in his lifetime: he was from Mishlinitz, Poland, the son of a Radomsk Hasid. He survived the Holocaust in a gold miners camp in Stalin’s Siberia, made his way from a DP camp to Israel after the war, became a student at Ponovich Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and ultimately moved to America and created his own quite different way of relating to the tradition that he knew so deeply. As a child, I remember being with my Saba – his thick, mixed-up accent, his mannerisms, and his humor inviting me to peer into the many worlds in which he had lived and the many worlds he had left. 

He was familiar with goodbyes that weren’t really goodbyes. Until the end of his life, my Saba was both distanced from and still deeply drawn to the world he was born into – a world of Hassidut, of deep faith and tradition. He had left that world, but it still lived inside him; that push and pull was a core part of who he was and how he grappled with his relationship to people and communities.

Recently, I called my dad and asked him how my Saba Moshe had related to Simchat Torah. What did he think of it? What was he like on Simchat Torah?  

“Well, you know, he would shuffle around with the others,” my dad began. Which made me laugh. “I think he enjoyed the atmosphere, even though it wasn’t really him. He didn’t drink, but he liked to joke around with the drunk people. You know, he was a Hasid and an idealist at heart, so he took pleasure in being, briefly, in the world of ecstatic celebration, even though it wasn’t his style.”  

For a moment, I felt an unexpected pang of disappointment. Part of me had wanted to hear that my Saba saw right through the celebration of Simchat Torah – a celebration that can sometimes feel forced or performative. Perhaps part of me had wanted the reassurance of knowing that he cast his lot whole-heartedly with those of us outside the circle and rejected the allure of this imagined center. But what my dad told me aligned much more with what I knew of my Saba, and held in it a reminder I’ve tried to channel at various moments in my life, both during his life and after. 

It wasn’t just that my Saba still felt connected to the traditional world he had left behind. He loved it and yet, in many ways, had always stood apart from it. He was deeply drawn to family members and friends who lived their lives fully within the Hasidic community; he talked and connected to them as if he were one of them, but he himself did not identify as a “true believer.” He was aware of that distance, and they may have been too. But they loved each other. My Saba – who stood at a distance from almost every community he had ever been a part of, for whom being an outsider was a central and unresolvable part of his identity – had a capacity to  stand on the outside and yet, still, appreciate and delight in what he saw. He was intimately acquainted with loneliness and loss, but it, somehow, hadn’t diminished his capacity for and commitment to loving. 

My Saba’s dance – inside and out – has offered me one model of what to do when I find myself outside the circle. He didn’t force himself into the circle, and he also didn’t grieve being outside of it. For the most part, he wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t jealous. He didn’t feel anger or judgment toward the people at the center, or to the circle itself. He wasn’t one of them, but he delighted in their delight. He loved humor and celebration, and he took pleasure in it, even from the margins. 

This is not a simple task, and it’s one that can be quite painful at times. Sometimes we can’t and don’t want to forgive so easily. Sometimes there are circles we need to leave, and keep our distance from. But there are other circles, bigger ones that still beckon us into a sense of belonging: to Torah, to a people, to history, to life itself. In my own life, Queerness and Jewishness have each at times left me feeling at the edge of the circle and at other times brought me deep into the center of the dance. 

On many occasions, when I have felt alone – unseen or untethered – a beloved person, or beloved book, a stranger, or a song, a line of Torah, or the feeling of leaves on my skin have, with softness and grace and power, reminded me: you are not outside the circle. No matter how deeply you feel that you are, you are not outside the circle. Don’t trust the lie of your own disconnection. 

When I find myself outside the circle, as I often do on Simchat Torah, sometimes the way back in is as simple and mysterious as this: Something outside myself, seemingly out of nowhere, telling me I am loved. Telling me that the circle – unpredictable, full of distancing and drawing close – needs every one of us. 

I don’t know how my Saba accessed his capacity to delight in others’ delight from the outside. For me, it comes in the moments when I sense – with deep knowing, almost as though it were the most powerful secret –  that I’m not outside at all.