It’s been a busy few days with through Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) including my end of probation review on Wednesday and then straight into Yom Tov (festival) on Wednesday evening until Shabbat (Sabbath) today and then helping take down two sukkot (shul (synagogue) and home) (actually, there is more to do on both of them tomorrow). I have a lot to write, but I will split it into two or three posts for time reasons and to avoid a mammoth post. Today I am going to slip out of chronological order and focus on Simchat Torah (the festival of the Rejoicing of the Torah, really day two of Shmini Atzeret, itself a semi-independent holiday, but in some sense the eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles)) and then hopefully I will go back to what happened at work tomorrow or during the week.
I went into Simchat Torah badly, having missed shul on Thursday morning (Shmini Atzeret) as I was too exhausted and depressed. It seems to be hard for me to go directly from work mode to Shabbat/Yom Tov mode without an intervening day to adjust. I went to shul on Thursday evening nervous about what to expect as I hadn’t been in my new shul for Simchat Torah before. It is a boisterous festival, the second most boisterous after Purim and is celebrated with ecstatic dancing in shul. I have never liked it much for reasons I will explore below. In short, it is hard for me to enter into the appropriate spirit of things. Once or twice I have managed it, but very rarely.
Ma’ariv (evening prayers) started OK, but once we finished the bulk of the prayers, the difficulties began. First, they started auctioning off honours. I had heard of shuls where honours (e.g. reciting passages aloud in the service or carrying the Torah scrolls) are auctioned off for charity on Simchat Torah. This was different, as the ‘price’ of the honours was a commitment to study a specific amount of Torah in the coming year. The first few honours went for a low ‘price’, forty or fifty chapters of Mishnah, but the more important honours went for literally hundreds of pages of Talmud. (I think the rabbi bid something like 400 daf (800 pages) of Talmud for one honour, which is a lot.)
I felt uncomfortable with this. Partly it’s my inner Kotzk Hasid being angry at public declarations of goodness, even good intent, as well as anything that seems to set some people up as better than others. But mostly it was that I felt unable to join in. As I have written, I am struggling to keep up with my private decision to learn one Mishnah a day without taking on an additional set to study and even if I could count my current Mishanyot for the bidding (which I don’t think I could, as people were assigned particular Mishnayot so the community would complete certain Sederim) I do not know if I will be able to continue studying them if I get too disheartened or too depressed to set aside much time to study each day. I already feel inferior to people who can study a lot of Gemarah without having this to rub it in. The assistant rabbi, who was the auctioneer, tried to get me to bid, so I left the room and stood in the corridor because I was worried I would be forced to bid for something. I didn’t want any of the honours either – I didn’t really want to read anything out aloud because of social anxiety and I didn’t want to carry a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) in case I dropped it. Standing in the corridor did attract a certain amount of attention, but I thought it was safer than going back inside. I stood in the doorway so I had some idea of what was going on and so I looked like I was involved in some sense.
Then they started the hakafot, the circuits around the shul carrying the sifrei Torah and dancing. The dancing was Jewish dancing, which is dancing in a circle holding hands with those next to you or with your hands on their shoulders and vice versa. I tried to join in, but I couldn’t manage it and ended up standing at the edge watching. Pretty much every single one of my issues except the OCD was triggered here. I was too depressed to get the sense of joy needed to dance, I was too socially anxious to do anything that would risk people looking at me and my borderline Asperger’s was stopping me from being touched by other people or just standing close to them and sharing personal space. I was generally to inhibited and repressed to let go of my depression and anxieties and just join in.
On top of all this was my usual aversion to being part of a big group and being deindividuated and losing my sense of self. This is always scary for me and explains why I don’t like big crowds especially when designed to unite everyone there in some way e.g. political rallies, concerts (public transport is less of a problem because you are not supposed to give up your identity, accept a political or religious viewpoint or listen to the same music). I don’t know why I have this problem. It may stem from having a weak sense of self and being worried about losing it, it may stem from being bullied at school and associating crowds with bullies or it may be because the bullying meant I had to fight hard for my identity and I’m reluctant to let go of it, even for a few hours. (Incidentally, this article talks about why we do circle dancing; he talks about what I say about deindividuation, except from a positive viewpoint.)
Whatever the reason, I just could not join the crowds dancing around the shul. I stood there for the beginning of the first hakafa (of seven), before I felt awkward just standing there and went into the corridor again. I came back for the start of the second hakafa thinking maybe it would be easier to quietly and unobtrusively join this one, but it wasn’t. I was sort of hoping one of my “friends” (the people I like; I don’t know if they think of me as their friend) would see me and drag me in, to give me the boost I needed to get in (I thought once I started I would probably be OK), but no one did. The rabbi did try to get me to join and dragged me towards the circle, but he then went off somewhere else before I got there and I lost my nerve again and went back away. So I gave up and went home.
I should say that the Simchat Torah dancing is fuelled by whisky. Aside from the children and the young men, I think most people would have difficulty getting past their inhibitions without alcohol. I can’t drink because of medication interactions and because alcohol is a depressant. Also, based on the one time I accidentally tried whisky, I think it’s disgusting. I was also struggling because most of the men vaguely my age were dancing with their young children, so I just felt a failure for not getting married and having kids. This is before taking into consideration the fact that two of the three most important honourees were people I was at school with, who now have families and rabbinic ordination and basically seem to be better than me in every possible way.
On the way home I was feeling very depressed and self-harming (hitting myself). I felt bad for missing shul and not being involved. I also felt bad because I was thinking that I had missed a lot of shul this Tishrei and as I was using the Yom Tovim as a test to see if I was ready to date again, I thought maybe this means I shouldn’t date, in which case, will I ever be ready to date? I have only managed to dance once or twice on Simchat Torah in my entire life! If I wait until I manage that again, I might never date again. Even waiting to have a ‘perfect’ Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot could take a long time. I came home and told my parents that I hadn’t stayed “because I’m crap.” I don’t usually use even mild profanity, but I did here because I hated myself so much.
What I omitted to say is that when I was trying and failing to join the dancing, I really wanted to curse God for making me like this, making me so I can’t even enjoy my own religion (which matters to me more than anything else, even Doctor Who) or do the simple things that most people do to get some enjoyment out of life, which is often fairly miserable for most people unless you can seize the day and enjoy basic pleasures like dancing with your friends (assuming you have friends; I don’t always feel like I do. I suppose I shouldn’t say that, as I do have a couple of friends, but it’s hard to feel it sometimes). I wasn’t even that angry with God, I just wanted to “act out” and get His attention as I learnt from childhood that the children/people who misbehave the most are the ones who get the most attention. I do wonder what I’ve done to make Him punish me like this when all I want is to be a good Jew. If He does miracles for people at Hevria to get them to become frum, maybe He’s telling me to go away because He hates me and doesn’t want me to frum any more. But Judaism is a one-way ticket; you can convert in, but once you’re in (by birth or conversion) there’s no way out.
I felt terrible the rest of the evening. I missed shul the next morning fairly deliberately, because I couldn’t face the second lot of dancing. I went for Shabbat in the evening, but missed Shabbat morning today because I was still feeling depressed and nervous about going back to shul after what I did (or didn’t do). I managed to go back this evening for Minchah, seudah and Ma’ariv and to help take the sukkah down which made me feel a bit better, as I was doing something for the community in a way that I could manage, but writing this has just brought it all back and I think I had better stop now.