My first memories of Simchat Torah were recorded as a wide-eyed, “clueless” kid. Not truly understanding much of what was going on around me, I recall images of our shul‘s rabbi excitedly singing atop the shoulders of the tallest man in our shul. Hordes of suit-clad congregants loudly repeated after him words I recognized but couldn’t understand. Everyone seemed so happy.
I don’t remember where the women were.
By the time I reached high school, I began to truly feel the excitement of Simchat Torah myself. I suited up, understood and chanted all the songs, and danced my heart out. To this day the Simchat Torahs of my high school days stand out as some of the most enjoyable spiritual experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
I’m pretty sure most of the girls my age and women were talking outside.
Fast forward to the present day
I’m now 30 years old and happily married, with three kids under the age of 5.
Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud in Tractate Erchin (11a) states:
“אין אדם שר שירה אלא מתוך שמחה וטוב לבב” – A person cannot sing unless it comes from a place of happiness and heartfelt joy. Indeed, during this year’s Simchat Torah it was hard for me to sing, for where was my simcha?
For many years now, I’ve heard justified complaints from my wife: “There’s nothing for women to do in shul; the women barely dance, there’s no Torah on the women’s side, women don’t get called up for aliyahs,” etc.
With my encouragement, she’s tried a couple times in the past to go to so-called “women’s services,” but to no avail. As “into it” as she may have felt, she still came away with the feeling that there was something missing. Though she may have been part of a small group of women making merry, the gatherings she attended were far and away the exception to the norm in Modern Orthodox circles. From my point of view, what was missing was my wife, as those circumstances required us to celebrate Simchat Torah in separate locations.
Since we welcomed children into our lives, however, the “problem” has become far more acute. Quite necessarily tied to caring for the kids, it’s become impossible for my wife to enjoy Simchat Torah in a shul. I do my part as a parent and husband, but that doesn’t address the core issue here.
I’ve felt her pain each year, but this year it just hit me too hard when she said “Simchat Torah has become a day that I just try to get through and can’t wait for to be over and behind us.” It’s that statement that compelled me to write this.
It’s the same everywhere
Chatting with my friends in between hakafot this year, I most certainly didn’t feel alone. Their wives were also either at home or out at the local park. With exhausted expressions, my buddies tried vainly to rest from chasing after their young kids who came with them to shul to dance.
I do not think my particular shul is to blame for this situation. I’m positive that similar scenes and stories played themselves out in countless Modern Orthodox shuls and households here in Israel.
The current Modern Orthodox Jewish infrastructure is simply unequipped to provide a joyous Simchat Torah experience to women, especially those with young children.
What’s the answer?
I don’t purport to have a solution to this issue, but I can think of an answer that would work for me.
When Simchat Torah rolls around next year, I do indeed hope to be dancing with my family at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Should that not come to pass, however, I fully intend to be staying with my wife and children at a hotel. Granted, it’s not an ideal answer, but when faced with an irresolvable problem, one can choose to run away from it.
While it’s highly unlikely that going away to a hotel will bring more Torah into my chag, it will surely give my wife (and thus me) much more simcha. According to everything I’ve learned, the Torah places tremendous value on that too.