Judaism is meticulous about the manner in which it celebrates Festivals.
We eat matzah on Pesach because it recalls the suddenness of the Exodus that happened so quickly there was no time for the dough to rise. On Sukkot, we leave our homes and establish residence in a sukkah to remember, “In sukkot did I house the children of Israel when I took them out of Egypt.”
A question can be raised with regard to Simchat Torah – the holiday of rejoicing with the Torah. The purpose of the day is to give expression to the profound feelings of joy in the study and observance of Torah. The timing of this holiday, however, seems strange. We observe it on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot.
It would seem that Simchat Torah ought to be connected to Shavuot; the theme of this holiday, after all, is the giving of the Torah. The purpose of the Exodus was to fashion a unique nation that would govern its private and public affairs according to the commandments and philosophy of the Torah. Our love of Torah is so great that we anticipate the day of Revelation by counting the forty-nine days from Pesach to Shavuot. Why, then, don’t we sing and dance and rejoice with the Torah on Shavuot?
Judaism insists on honesty and frowns on displays of shallow emotionalism. How often do we feel so happy we just want to burst out in song and dance? We need something personal and compelling, like a major simcha, to arouse powerful feelings of joy.
Is it reasonable to expect us to get so excited over a book containing commandments, prohibitions and exhortations that we want to sing and dance with it for hours and hours? Indeed it is – but these emotions must be cultivated over a long period of time.
The goal of Torah observance is not mere obedience but joyful exuberance with the lifestyle of kedushah (holiness). The Rambam says (Laws of Lulav 8:18), “The rejoicing one experiences in the performance of mitzvot and love of God who commanded them is a great service. Whoever holds himself back from this simcha is fit to be punished as the Torah says, “Because they failed to serve Hashem with joy and a good heart .”
The joy of which the Rambam speaks does not come quickly or easily. It requires effort, devotion and the ability to withdraw from superficial pleasures. You must put your heart and soul into the study of Torah in order to appreciate its great beauty and fall in love with it.
Shavuot marks the beginning of our relationship with Torah. This is the time when our ancestors demonstrated their faithfulness by saying, “We will do and we will listen.” We knew Torah is the greatest treasure. But it does not magically transform us. It takes a great deal of dedicated effort to achieve the emotional joy and satisfaction the Torah promises.
On Shavuot we renew that commitment. Many observe the beautiful custom of learning through the night to demonstrate their willingness to part with the pleasure of sleep in order to gain more Torah knowledge.
Let’s consider the deeper significance of this practice. The mitzvah of Talmud Torah is not bound by time or place. We read in the Shema, “And you shall teach them to your children and discuss them when you sit in your house and when you travel on the road, when you lie down and when you arise.” Although there is never a time when one is exempt from study, the night assumes a special significance in the performance of this mitzvah.
The Rambam says (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:13): “Even though it is a mitzvah to learn by day and by night a person only learns the bulk of his wisdom by night. Therefore, one who seeks to merit the Crown of Torah should guard all his nights and not waste any one of them with sleep, eating and drinking, talking and the like, but only with the study of Torah and matters of wisdom.”
But if study is properly done, what difference does it make when it takes place? I would suggest an explanation for this tantalizing Rambam. The daytime hours are universally regarded as the time for “work.” One naturally feels a responsibility to be engaged in some gainful employment during the day. Night, however, is the time people associate with self-gratification. You’ve put in a long day and now it’s time to unwind and have fun.