It’s a joyous time of year, when we prepare to finish the Torah reading cycle. But it’s not so joyous in my house.
We are all woefully sleep deprived, trudging around with bruiselike circles under our eyes, looking like Sicilian widows in a Fellini movie. This is because Josie is not sleeping. And when Josie isn’t sleeping, nobody is sleeping.
What does this have to do with Simchat Torah? Bear with me.
Josie has been alive for almost nine years, and in that time she’s had several protracted battles with nighttime anxiety. When she was 4 years old, she was terrified of music in a minor key—she fought sleep for days after I stupidly played the CD of Peter and the Wolf for her. It might as well have been the theme from The Exorcist. When she was 6, a wild animal attack in the movie Beauty and the Beast terrified her so much she barely slept. Each time she experienced these fears, she found the act of closing her eyes nearly impossible. There were rivers of tears. No amount of threats, punishments, or bribery helped.
And now Josie is afraid of an image in the Underland Chronicles, a series of books about a boy named Gregor who falls through a grate in a Manhattan laundry room into a subterranean world beneath our own. She adored the first two books and zipped through them. Sure, I’d been warned that the books got darker as the series progressed, but so does Harry Potter, and that wasn’t a problem for her. How was I supposed to know that the third book would scare her so badly?
At first, Josie wouldn’t even tell me what frightened her so much. She’d been finished with the book for a week when her sleep problems started. Why the delayed reaction? She wouldn’t tell me. Finally, in bright daylight, with both of us blinking like moles from exhaustion, she told me she’d fixated on an image in the third book in the series, an image of characters suffering from a plague. She couldn’t stop thinking about grapefruit-sized, engorged purple tumors. Charmant! It didn’t bother her at first, but then her jittery mind grabbed onto the visual and clung to it.
And this brings me to Simchat Torah. Right now, just as we’re concluding our Torah cycle, I’m debating whether to let Josie conclude this literary series. All of us—me, Josie, the Jewish people—are focused on finishing the books we’re reading. She desperately wants to finish reading the series. She insists that she knows the series will only get darker—like the author’s Hunger Games trilogy for older readers, it’s about the horrors of war. As an added bonus, the Gregor series has musings about biological weaponry and genocide. Josie says that it’s just one single image that haunts her, and that she can handle whatever comes next. Do I let her finish?
Here’s the thing: Finishing something is powerful. On Simchat Torah, we celebrate having made our way through the complex, troubling, sometimes thrilling and sometimes boring, always open-to-interpretation books of Moses. And that frees us to start the whole thing over again, with more insight than we had a year ago. Or so we hope.
It’s not accidental that Simchat Torah is a kid-friendly holiday. From a pre-bar-or-bat-mitzvah point-of-view, it’s awesome: You get to stay up late, dance in shul, get your own special aliyah (called kol ha-ne’arim, “all the youths”) in which you get to accompany a hotshot in the congregation onto the bima and stand under a canopy of protection made of tallitot, adults’ prayer shawls. Everyone blesses the kids, using the blessing Jacob used on his children, and voilà, the circle of history and myth and storytelling and prayer is unbroken. We encourage children to keep going—in their learning, in their faith, in their connection to the Jewish people—and we let them feel grown-up by celebrating with us, in the main sanctuary, not shunted into a children’s service with babyish little plush Torahs. This is the real deal.
Our people know from stories. We know how much power they have. We know how gratifying it is to finish a story we’ve struggled with. The term “closure” is woefully overused, but there’s a kind of triumph and satisfaction in completion. We’ve made it through the exciting parts, the boring parts, the upsetting parts. And, thus fulfilled, we get to start over. There’s always something new to learn. Josie, an inveterate re-reader, intuitively knows this.
But when I think about it, I wonder what message this holiday sends to me as a mother struggling with a specific parenting issue. Yes, Simchat Torah allows kids to feel older and to feel a sense of mastery. On the other hand, though, religious education generally provides the learning kids can handle, developmentally speaking, at whatever age they are. Non-Orthodox kids like mine tend to experience Torah almost exclusively through Genesis, the kid-friendliest book. We focus on its stories—timeless, character-driven, fantastic—in both senses of the word: There’s no way the Garden of Eden or Jacob wrestling the angel is any less fantastic than an underground city full of talking bats and giant cockroaches.
Should the fact that kids don’t generally read the entire Torah tell me that it’s wiser to hold back in Josie’s secular reading as well? Do I wait to let her finish the series until I’m sure she can manage her fears? Or does this mean instead that I should let her finish, as she wishes? Aren’t the stories in Genesis often pretty disturbing and frightening? Should I allow her to revel in the power of narrative, the uncertainty and suspense of good storytelling, and the sense of completion we all get from conquering a challenge?
Last night Josie slept, after four days of quaking and crying. What changed? “I told myself a bedtime story,” she said. “I take the picture that frightens me and I put it in a happy story and I make it end, and that chases away the bad dreams.” See? Stories, and endings, have power.
On Simchat Torah, we keep repeating hoshiah na (“save us”), as we dance in circles around the sanctuary. We know we need saving. We know our existence is scary and uncertain. We know we have human failings. The holiday is an acknowledgment of all these facts as well as a celebration. We finish; we start over. And hey, that’s life. You can’t have a new beginning without an ending.