Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the unique introspection of the Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry.
The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Sukkot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah.
This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance found in many (but by no means all) shuls.
Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.
Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. But the question is: What exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah?
Of course one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized, and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning.
And rather than returning to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.
And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life but have now been frozen by a stultified rabbinate. Well, not quite.
The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Sukkot. Every day of Sukkot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read.
Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”
After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it, and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with it, or even kissing it when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.
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One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves.
Sometimes we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.
It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to God’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to God’s will rather than expect God’s will to conform to our needs.
Not long ago, a yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing, or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings.
The world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if they had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality, and forced conversions.
Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat.