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October 5, 2015 / 22 Tishri, 5776
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Posts Tagged ‘Simchat Torah’

The Last Command

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

By now Moses had given 612 commands to the Israelites. But there was one further instruction he still had to give, the last of his life, the final mitzvah in the Torah:

“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31: 19).

The oral tradition understood this to be a command that each Israelite should take part in the writing of a Sefer Torah. Here is how Maimonides states the law:

“Every male Israelite is commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself, as it says, ‘Now therefore write this song,’ meaning, ‘Write for yourselves [a complete copy of] the Torah that contains this song,’ since we do not write isolated passages of the Torah [but only a complete scroll]. Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll from his parents, nonetheless it is a mitzvah to write one for oneself, and one who does so is as if he had received [the Torah] from Mount Sinai. One who does not know how to write a scroll may engage [a scribe] to do it for him, and whoever corrects even one letter is as if he has written a whole scroll” (Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 7:1).

There is something poetic in the fact that Moses left this law until the last. For it was as if he were saying to the next generation, and all future generations: “Do not think it is enough to be able to say, ‘My ancestors received the Torah from Moses.’ You must take it and make it new in every generation.” And so Jews did.

The Koran calls Jews “the people of the Book.” That is a great understatement. The whole of Judaism is an extended love story between a people and a book – between Jews and the Torah. Never has a people loved and honored a book more. They read it, studied it, argued with it, lived it. In its presence they stood as if it were a king. On Simchat Torah, they danced with it as if it were a bride. If, God forbid, it fell, they fasted. If one was no longer fit for use it was buried, as if it were a relative that had died.

For a thousand years they wrote commentaries to it in the form of the rest of Tanach (there were a thousand years between Moses and Malachi, the last of the prophets, and in the very last chapter of the prophetic books Malachi says, “Remember the Torah of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel”).

Then for another thousand years, between the last of the prophets and the closure of the Babylonian Talmud, they wrote commentaries to the commentaries in the form of the documents – Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara – of the Oral Law. Then for a further thousand years, from the Gaonim to the Rishonim to the Acharonim, they wrote commentaries to the commentaries to the commentaries in the form of biblical exegesis, law codes and works of philosophy. Until the modern age virtually every Jewish text was directly or indirectly a commentary to the Torah.

For a hundred generations it was more than a book. It was God’s love letter to the Jewish people, the gift of His word, the pledge of their betrothal, the marriage contract between heaven and the Jewish people, the bond that God would never break or rescind. It was the story of the people and their written constitution as a nation under God. When they were exiled from their land it became the documentary evidence of past promise and future hope. In a brilliant phrase the poet Heinrich Heine called the Torah “the portable homeland of the Jew.” In George Steiner’s gloss, “The text is home; each commentary a return.”

Dispersed, scattered, landless, powerless: so long as a Jew had the Torah he or she was at home – if not physically then spiritually. There were times when it was all they had. Hence the lacerating line in one of the liturgical poems in Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur: “Ein lanu shiur, rak haTorah hazot – We have nothing left except this Torah.”

Tishrei’s Universal Message

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

The start of the Jewish New Year, the month of Tishrei, is filled with holy days, among them four foundational celebrations: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah-Shemini Atzeret.

They are quite different from one another. Yet we may also think of all four holidays as two pairs of two. The first two – the day of memory and accounting and the day of atonement – are awe-inspiring and grave compared with the last two festivals, which are days of joy.

At the same time, the first three holidays do have a common denominator: As much as they are Jewish holidays, they carry a universal message. Embedded within them are three of humanity’s cardinal touchstones: accounting and judgment; mercy and atonement; and the joy of life.

These attributes and qualities are essential to the lives of every human being. We mark the New Year by commemorating creation on the one hand and celebrating the Kingship of the Lord on the other. Both creation and God’s sovereignty pertain to all humankind and are not specifically Jewish.

The Day of Atonement, too, is relevant to every human being. Life is full of mistakes and transgressions. Without atonement it would be unbearable to go on living with the unresolved and painful pieces of our past.

Sukkot at first glance seems to be far more connected with Jewish history. Yet at its essence, the holiday is actually a festival of thanksgiving for what we have. We acknowledge the tranquility in our lives and express our gratitude for Divine gifts.

Moreover, our sages teach us that during Sukkot in the days of the Holy Temple, seventy bulls were offered to God in the name of the seventy nations of the world. As the prophet Zachariah foretells, in the days to come it is on Sukkot that all the peoples of the world will come as pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem.

This combination of the particular and the universal is not just one more interesting point; it is the key for understanding the meaning of these three holidays. In all our other celebrations, and perhaps in Jewish religious life in general, we stress the specificity of Jewish existence. Most of our holidays and memorial days are deeply connected with our own history.

In Tishrei, however, we focus on our fundamental humanity, on the fact that we are human beings with great problems. In this context, humanity is not defined as a group of human beings. Here we speak of our basic humanity – humanity as a quality.

The very touchstones that we mark in Tishrei are what make us human. The essence of the universality of these holidays, then, is not in the point of sharing with others, it is in delving into ourselves in order to reveal and find some of the fundamentals of our existence. We explore and acknowledge what is universal to all humankind within our own selves.

The fourth and last of the holidays of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret (and with it Simchat Torah), stands in clear contrast to the first three. As beautifully depicted by our sages, the king made a great banquet to which he invited all the citizens of his realm. At the end of these feasts, he called his most beloved friend and said now that all these big events are over, let us have a small banquet just for the two of us (tractate Sukkah 55b).

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a world-renowned scholar who has authored more than 60 books and hundreds of articles on Torah.

A Simple Teaching, Difficult To Understand

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

I am interrupting my series on “Yom Tov Mayhem,” focusing on adult children who come home for the holidays with their families and expect their mothers to be cook, housekeeper and baby-sitter all rolled into one. How to deal with this problem without damaging relationships will, please G-d, be the topic of my next column.

These days, events occur with such speed that before we absorb one, another is upon us. Additionally, our attention span has become nil. We no longer know how to listen; even while someone is talking to us, we are busy texting someone else or scrolling through our e-mail messages.

We have recently lost many great Torah sages, but I wonder if we truly feel the terrible void that has been left. And now, the beloved  Rebbetzin Bathsheva Kanievsky  has been called on high. Her sudden demise represents a tragic loss, especially to the many thousands of women who found solace and comfort through her loving guidance, wisdom and sage advice. May her holy neshamah have an aliyah and may she continue to daven for all of us.

This past week also saw much jubilation and thanksgiving. For five years, all of us have been davening for the safe homecoming of Gilad Shalit, and now, Baruch Hashem, we have seen our prayers answered. I realize there has been some controversy over the exchange that made his freedom possible – a thousand savage terrorists for one frail, painfully thin Jewish soldier. To many it is incongruous to even imagine that such a disproportionate, seemingly suicidal deal could be struck. Surely this was a grossly dangerous exchange.

I am not going to argue the pros and cons, but I do know our sages teach that all those who save one life,  it is accounted to them as though they saved an entire world. Of course you may protest, “At what price? These savage killers could, G-d forbid, take many more lives and encourage more kidnappings.”

I am not a halachic expert and I am not here to make a judgment call on that. We are Am Yisrael, and we march to the tune of a different drummer. We are not unaware of the terrifying dangers this deal represents, but just the same, to us every Yiddish neshamah is precious, so even as we offer prayers of thanksgiving for Gilad’s homecoming, we also pray that Hashem will protect us from these barbaric monsters and that they will perish before they can inflict more harm.

Throughout the years I have taught that one can always find some sort of “remez” – allusion – in the parshah (weekly Torah portion) to events that are unfolding before our eyes. This time, it is not only the parshah but the Book of Psalms as well that stunningly confirms this teaching.

The Book of  Tehillim designates a psalm for each day of the week. Gilad Shalit was released on the third day –  Tuesday – for which the psalm is number 60. There are two words in that psalm that jump out and demand our attention – sukkot and gilad. Indeed, the release occurred on the holiday of Sukkot, followed by the words, “li gilad – “Gilad is mine.”

As for the parshah we just read on Simchat Torah, it is written, “And Hashem showed him the entire land – the gilad” (Deut. 34:1).

Farfetched? Coincidence? Remez? Take it as you will, but the fact is that these are the passages we were reading from the Torah and the Book of Psalms at the time Gilad Shalit was returned to his land. So put aside your Blackberry and your cell phone for a few moments and think. Think some more and absorb.

The Joy Of Torah

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

                  One of the most popular of our chaggim is Simchat Torah, which falls on the last day of Sukkot. As its name suggests, Simchat Torah celebrates the joy of the Torah. There is no record of this holiday before the 11th century, and its origin may have been in Spain. 
                  The highlight of the chag is when all the sifrei Torah are removed from the Ark and there is a joyful procession with them around the shul.  This circling is called hakafot, and it is necessary to make seven circuits.  It is a mystical imitation of a chuppah, symbolizing the marriage of Bnei Yisrael to the Law.  There is even a Chatan Torah and then a Chatan Bereishis who buys the privilege of reading the first portion of sefer.  
                  As the hakafot progress, different members of the congregation are given the opportunity to hold the sifrei Torah and dance with them.  The procession resembles the custom of a kallah, at the beginning of a chuppah, walking around her chatan seven times to form a closed circle.   
                  A special feature of the day is when all the boys under bar mitzvah age are called up for a special aliyah.  The final verses of the Torah are read while the children stand under a large tallit spread above them like a canopy.  The children are blessed with the words Yaakov used to bless Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:16) “Hamalach hagoel osee me kol rah, yevarech es hanearim – The angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless these children.”
                  There is a lovely Simchat Torah custom in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem, where I live.  At a certain designated time, all the local shuls meet (there are four) with their sifrei Torah in Kikar Denya, the square in front of the supermarket.  There, with singing and dancing, they invite all the passers-by – secular and religious alike, and particularly the children – to join in the merriment.  For me, this is the highlight of the day, with toddlers being carried on their fathers’ shoulders, and many people, possibly for the first time ever, joining in to dance with the Torah, before eventually all return to their own shuls to continue with the service.
                  The prayer for rain in Israel is an important part of Simchat Torah liturgy.   “When do Jews and Gentiles rejoice together?  Only when it rains!”  No this is not a recent quotation in response to our current water shortage and the dangerously low level of Lake Kinneret.  It was written by Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi in Bereshis Rabbah (13.6)  “For drought is the scourge of the earth, and rain its greatest blessing.”
                  Tishrei, the seventh month, is linked to the start of Israel’s winter rains, and crops will fail without it.  We plead for rain in the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, Moshe, Aharon and the 12 shevatim … “For a blessing and not a curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for famine.”
                  The Mishna tells us “the world is judged through water.” To this day we recite a prayer for rain on the last day of Sukkot, as rain is Israel’s life-blood.  Good rains mean prosperity, drought means ruin for the country’s kibbutzim, moshavim and agricultural settlements.
                  Linked to the prayer for rain is another Sukkot ceremony emphasizing the value of water.  It is known as Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the Joy of the Drawing of the Waters. When the Beit Hamikdash stood it was practiced with great enthusiasm and zest.  It is first mentioned in Sefer Yeshayahu.  It began on the second night of Sukkot and continued for six nights.  Jerusalemites and pilgrims flocked to the outer court of the Beit Hamikdash.  An enormous golden menorah was fed with vessels of oil by kohanim until flames leapt towards the sky.
                  The most pious men led a torch dance, and the Leviim led the people in chanting hymns and psalms to the music of flutes, harps and cymbals.  They danced and sang until dawn, when the long procession wended its way to the pool of Shiloah.  This pool was formed by the overflow of water in Chezekiah’s tunnel which led from the Gihon spring into the city.
                  At the pool, a golden ewer was filled with water and brought back to the Beit Hamikdash, where the Kohen Gadol poured it over the mizbayach.  Today there is no Beit Hamikdash, no mizbayach and no water in the pool at Shiloah, but the “Drawing of the Waters” is symbolically recaptured every year with singing, dancing and rejoicing in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, near the pool of Shiloah at the base of the City of David.
                  And today, on Simchat Torah, Jews all over the world remember Israel’s need for rain on the last day of chag.  It is a long prayer which begins with the words: “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to descend.  From the heavenly source He sends down rains softening the earth with their crystal drops.  Water You have called the symbol of Your power. It refreshes with its drops all breathing creatures and it will someday quicken those who exalt the power of rain.”
                  After six more verses, the prayer for rain concludes with the reader chanting, and the congregation responding: “For You are the Lord our G-d who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.  For a blessing and not for a curse. Amen. For life and not for death. Amen. For plenty and not for famine.”

                  It is a fitting bracha with which to end Simchat Torah and Sukkot, in which three times we are commanded to rejoice.  After the solemness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this gives us its blessings:  “May you  have nothing but joy!”

It’s My Opinion: First Do No Harm

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

One of my dearest friends recently flew to New York to be with her ailing father who had suffered a severe heart attack. Sadly, he did not survive.


Her father lived in the same Boro Park building for over 60 years. His children grew up there. His wife had passed away a few years earlier. My friend’s father stayed in his apartment. It was his home.


Over the years, the neighborhood changed. The apartment building became more and more haredi. The elderly man in the knit kippah was now an anomaly, but he managed with a pleasant word and lighthearted banter toward all.


During the dark days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he became the information center for the building. He was the only one in the entire apartment house who owned a television. He graciously accommodated everyone who came to his door seeking news.


His death occurred on the first day of Sukkot. My friend stayed in her father’s home throughout Chol HaMoed. Because of the holiday, she would not be able to sit shivah until the Motzaei Shabbat after Simchat Torah.


The normal sadness of losing a father was exacerbated by the strange behavior that she observed as exhibited by the tenants of the complex. Residents passed in the hall. People came in and out of the same doors. No one offered a condolence. No one spoke a single word about the loss of a longtime neighbor.


My friend is one of the nicest and kindest human beings I have ever met. Her fuse is long. Her patience is incredible. Days went by. Finally, even she had enough.


She exploded. “What’s wrong?” she asked one of the women. “You know my father just died. Don’t you even have the decency to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss?’ ” The woman responded, “It’s Yom Tov. We are forbidden to take part in mourning.”


             Obviously, the neighbors in the building were acting in accordance with what they thought was proper adherence to Jewish law. The regulations of mourning during holidays and the Sabbath are actually quite restrictive. However, a few words of condolence are not the same as an effusive public eulogy.


The neighbors in this apartment building certainly did not purposely act with malicious intent. They meant no harm. Nonetheless, their actions left behind a hurtful aftermath. Medical doctrine advices, “First do no harm.” We would all be well advised to follow that credo.

A ‘New Year’ Resolution

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

The week-long holiday period that includes Sukkot, Chol Hamoed, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah is almost over, as are all the attendant festivities, celebrations, family gatherings and trips, and of course, all that over-eating and indulging in food and drink. Most of us will happily (or maybe not so happily) go back to being absorbed by our day-to-day routines; for the great majority, life will return to “normal.”

For most of us, the tormenting hunger and thirst – and the heightened and sobering awareness of our fragility, vulnerability and mortality that we experienced on Yom Kippur – are receding memories.

Unfortunately, so too is the fierce resolve that infused our frenetic davening – that we would change for the better; that we would re-examine, shake up and refine the status quo of our attitudes and actions. That given another chance, we would become better Jews and worthier human beings and be deserving of Hashem’s forgiveness and mercy and an inscription in the Book of Life.

Sadly – even predictably – our heart-felt resolutions to improve ourselves in a manner pleasing to God and our passionate internal promise to elevate ourselves physically or spiritually as ovdei Hashem tend to fall by the wayside after a few days or weeks. In this respect we are not so unlike our non-Jewish neighbors, who every January 1 vow that they will change for the better; that they will, for example, stop smoking or start exercising, but find that it is easier to utter this sentiment than to actualize it.

Perhaps we would be more successful in keeping the “promise to upgrade” we so earnestly took upon ourselves (usually while we worriedly immersed ourselves in the U’Netana Tokef prayer) if we focus on a specific takana – correction – instead of just enthusiastically vowing to do teshuvah – but with no direction.

“Oi, Oi, we have to do teshuvah”- the singular refrain one usually hears when there has been heart-wrenching tragedy in the community – has become as “generic” a sentiment as the one we hear on an almost daily basis – “Have a nice day.” That expression is well-meaning – but it has no substance to it. “Nice” doesn’t convey anything concrete – as would for example, the statement, “Hope your train is on time,” or “May your work day be productive.”

Neither does the phrase “doing teshuvah.”

The idea, then, is to actually zero in on an area of your spiritual life where you know you are deficient or lacking, and try to improve it. For some, it can be as simple as slowing down during davening and focusing on what you are saying; or reading the words in a way that you actually understand what you are reading – even if it means praying from a siddur that has English on the facing page.

Resolving to do an act of kindness on a daily basis – such as picking up the phone and brainstorming with a friend to set up single acquaintances or buying a less expensive version of something you want – like a sheitel or outfit and diverting the money saved to tzedakah – is a very doable personal tikkun.

On a personal level, I know that I need to work on being more positive, as opposed to being just “parve” when dealing with people, friend or stranger alike. A classic example of being “parve” is not wishing a good Shabbat to a passerby who obviously is not going to say it to me. I tend to jump to the unsubstantiated conclusion that this person is a snob; that based on a quick glance, I have been assessed as being someone who isn’t “chashuv” enough to warrant a greeting. And so I ignore them as well. In my mind, what comes around goes around. If I do not exist, then you don’t either.

This Yom Kippur however, after reading of the many calamities and misfortunes that can be visited on every individual, as well as the klal, I realized that I was guilty of also “assessing someone based on a quick glance,” and making a hasty judgment. Perhaps the person who acts as if I am invisible is herself feeling invisible – perhaps she feels unworthy of being greeted; perhaps her self-confidence and her ability to be friendly has been whittled away by the heavy burdens her life has accumulated. Perhaps she is so preoccupied with something huge going on in her life – a simcha or sadly a misfortune – that she looks at me but does not see me.

And then again, perhaps she is a snob.

But that is her problem – and I should not let negativity make me parve. Therefore, I hope to fight my own inclination to look away, and instead offer a “hello/gut Shabbos” greeting.

That will be a gift to her – and to whomever else I encounter who is feeling negative. A positive remark is like a sip of water when someone is parched. It rejuvenates. Think of how you felt when the fast ended and you drank a cup of cold water or juice. As those first few drops flowed down your throat, you felt the cold wetness suffusing your entire body and you immediately felt revived.

A compliment, a comment of praise – even a simple hello – permeates the recipient’s soul, flooding it with a sense of well-being or even hope. And the giver feels elevated as well. A kind word is mutually uplifting.

Have a good Shabbos!

A Night Of Joy

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/a-night-of-joy/2010/05/18/

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