Formations 02.24.2019: Dancing with the Divine

Celebrating Simchat Torah

Psalm 1; 19:7-14

In Judaism, the Torah is read from start to finish every year. In the fall, Jews mark the completion of this annual cycle through holiday of Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Law.” Rabbi Tzvi Freeman describes how this holiday perhaps more than any other allows Jews to celebrate being Jews:

Simchat Torah is the day when we celebrate our Jewishness by taking it for a dance—literally. We hold a Torah Scroll, rolled, tied and wrapped, and we hug it and dance with it.

And no, as explained elsewhere, it is not normal to dance with a book—especially with a holy book. And yes, scrolls are books.

But this is a Jew—one who dances with the divine.

Freeman sees dancing with a Torah scroll as a metaphor for one’s relationship to Scripture generally. We can see the book as a dead thing, a collection of “curious legends, quaint stories and archaic laws,” or we can embrace it—maybe even literally—and experience through it “a living covenant and an eternal bond with the infinite.”

We dare not lost sight of the God who meets us in Scripture or let this God become lost in translation. If we do, we’ll become lost ourselves.

Our selections from the Psalms provide an example of this attitude of celebration of the Torah and thankfulness to God for bestowing this great gift upon God’s people. In Psalm 1, the psalmist recounts the blessings that belong to those who conform their lives to God’s law. In Psalm 19, the psalmist extols the perfections of the law and commits himself to obey it.

Tzvi Freeman, “Simchat Torah All Year Round,” Chabad.org, 25 Sep 2018 <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4146268/jewish/Simchat-Torah-All-Year-Round.htm>.

Discussion

• Do you think most believers today think of God’s law as something to celebrate or merely as something that must be obeyed? Why is this?
• Why might the psalmist connect the law so closely with joy?
• How can believers guard against approaching Scripture as an intellectual curiosity or a dead list of rules?
• How can we approach God’s commandments with an attitude of thankfulness and praise?

Reference Shelf

Law and Wisdom

The OT wisdom literature refers often to law (e.g., Prov 28:4) but not explicitly to the Law of Moses. Law appears to belong naturally to the social order (Prov 13:14; Eccl 12:11). Knowledge of it begins in reverence and humility (Prov 1:7). The man Job, a non-Israelite, measures himself by a very high ethic without reference to a particular law tradition (Job 31:1-40). The magisterial Ps 119, meditating on the law of the Lord, does not refer specifically to the Law of Moses nor does it refer necessarily to any written law code; the psalm often suggests a notion of law closer to the wisdom tradition (e.g., vv. 18-19, 27, 64, 89, etc….). An explicit identification between wisdom (hokma) and Penteteuchal law (tora) is not clearly seen until the deuterocanonical (OT Apocrypha) wisdom literature (Prologue to Sirach; Sir 24:23; Bar 3:9–4:1). The development was anticipated, however, by the Deuteronomist, for whom the Law of Moses replaced the wisdom of the nation (Deut 4:5-8).

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Law in the Old Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 506.

Two Attitudes Contrasted

According to the psalm that introduces the whole Psalter, the wise person is the one who reads and meditates on the Torah day and night. Psalm 1 begins with a beatitude (“Blessed…”) typical of a wisdom poem, as in Jeremiah 17:5-8, a wisdom utterance that may have influenced the psalmist. In both instances the wise person, who ponders the torah, is likened to “a tree planted by waters” that bears fruit in its proper season in contrast to the foolish (wicked) who are like evanescent chaff, driven away by the wind. The psalm has a symmetrical structure in which contrasting (positive and negative) statements are balanced for the purpose of teaching….

Some may regard this as an “achievement” psalm: the wise person who lives by the torah is successful, while the one who flouts it is a failure. But this simplistic view hardly does justice to the poem. Here the psalmist sharply contrasts two attitudes—or, as we would say today, two life-styles. On the one hand, there are the persons who humbly acknowledge their dependence on God and seek to know God’s will by studying the Torah. They live by a personal relationship with God, striving constantly, and listening intently, for the word of God day and night. They may not be great persons, as the world measures greatness, but they are blessed by a serene sense of the God-given meaning of life. On the other hand, there are persons who care nothing about the religious tradition, who are determined to live out of their own resources, and who are scornful of the devout life. Such persons belong in the category of the “fool” who says in his heart (mind), “There is no God” (Ps. 10:4; 14:1), that is, the practical atheist who supposes that a person can live as he or she pleases and get away with it because God is not to be taken seriously. These people, says the psalmist, are like the chaff that the wind blows away during a threshing of wheat, for their existence lacks deep rootage.

Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 220–22.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email