The hakafot are a central feature of Chag HaSukkot and the one practice common to both Sukkot and Simchat Torah. On the seven days of Sukkot we also sit in the sukkah and take the lulav and etrog. Though we exit the sukkah and put down the lulav on the eighth, we continue circling the bima.
Sukkot – Torah in the Middle
The hakafot of Sukkot commemorate the hoshanot around the mizbeach in the Beit HaMikdash (Mishnah Sukkah 4:5). Lacking sacrifices today, we encircle a sefer Torah held on the bima (Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 560:1). The focus on the sefer Torah expresses the centrality of Torah within our lives.
On Simchat Torah, of course, we hold the Torah in our arms as we dance around the bima. With the Torah no longer at the circle’s center, we wonder what we are encircling?
I believe there are two answers to this question.
Celebrating our Relationship with Hashem
The Gemara (Taanit 31a) tells us that Hashem will one day arrange a circle of tzaddikim in Gan Eden who will dance around and point to Him in the circle’s center. One can see our Simchat Torah hakafot as a similar, futuristic celebration of Hashem at the center of our lives. This follows the example of Dovid HaMelech who danced in front of the aron kodesh, as if to dance before Hashem (Mishneh Berurah 669:11).
The Yehi Ratzon we say before the hakafot also expresses this notion. We ask Hashem to allow the hakafot to “break down” the “iron wall” that separates between us so that we can fully connect to Him and His Torah (Masechet Berachot 32b and Yerushalmi Sukkah 19a).
After circling the Torah during Sukkot, on Simchat Torah we take it in hand. Together with it, we celebrate the relationship it facilitates between us and Hashem.
The Children – Our Future
A second explanation is that the circle is meant to focus on our children. The Rashba (Responsa 260) mentions a Simchat Torah custom to adorn children with the Torah’s silver crowns and walk the children into the place where the sifrei Torah are kept.
Focusing our Torah and Torah celebration on our children celebrates our passing of the Torah heritage on to future generations. By dancing with and around our children, we pray that they, too, will live by the Torah and pass it on to their children. As we say every day in the birkot HaTorah: “And let it be for us and for our descendants and for the descendants of your people Israel, that all of us know your name and learn Torah for its sake.”
The Torah reading for Simchat Torah includes the pasuk: “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4). This pasuk – the first one we teach young children as soon as they learn to speak (Masechet Sukkah 42a) – identifies Torah as our eternal communal inheritance; we commit to pass it from generation to generation (Ramban’s commentary on Devarim 33:4).
The Jewish people have had highs and lows, moments in which we seemed doomed to disappear. Our focus on our children and persistence in raising them with Torah values has ensured our continued survival.
We recently experienced such a moment during and after the Holocaust. A beautiful story immortalized by a popular song powerfully expresses this idea:
I met a man last Sunday, who was on his way back home
From a wedding in Chicago, and was traveling alone.
He said he came from Vilna, a survivor, I could tell
And I helped him with his suitcase, he could not walk very well.
A steward gave us coffee as we settled on the plane
And I asked why he bothers; at his age there’d be no blame.
He said, “No simcha is a burden, though I miss my dear late wife,”
And then he shared with me a story that has changed my view of life.
I remember liberation, joy and fear both intertwined
Where to go and what to do, and how to leave the pain behind.
My heart said, “Go to Vilna,” dare I pray yet once again
For the chance to find a loved one, or perhaps a childhood friend.
It took many months to get there, from the late spring to the fall.
And like I, many others, close to four hundred in all.
And slowly there was healing, broken souls now mixed with light
When someone proudly cried out, “Simchas Torah is tonight!”
We ran as one toward the shul, our spirits in a trance
And we tore apart the barricade – in defiance we would dance
But the scene before our eyes shook us to the core
Scraps of siddur, bullet holes, bloodstains on the floor.
Turning to the eastern wall, we looked on in despair
There would be no scrolls to dance with – the holy ark was bare
Then we heard two children crying, a boy and girl whom no one knew
And we realized that no children were among us but those two.
We danced round and round in circles
As if the world had done no wrong
From evening until morning
Filling up the shul with song.
Though we had no sifrei Torah
To clutch and hold up high,
In their place we held those children
Am Yisrael chai
….the Jewish people WILL live on….. (“A Man From Vilna,” Journeys)
Let us ensure this Sukkot and Simchat Torah to fully appreciate the great gift of our children and our responsibility to help them appreciate the beauty of our Torah and the great zechut of passing it on to their children in the future.