This Drasha was delivered at the Skokie Women’s Tefillah Group, Simchat Torah day, 5783.
My father likes to say that the Jewish holiday season—with so many holy days packed into one month, is like a poorly baked raisin challah—with most of the raisins clustered at one end, very few in the middle and the others, more evenly distributed towards the end. We have Rosh HaShana, Tzom Gedalia, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah all in Tishrei. Nothing in Cheshvan, Kislev- we have Chanukah, then Tu B’shvat, and then orderly holidays of Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tisha B’av and then Elul. If you are like me, it’s been challenging to wake up each morning and be certain of what day it is. Is it Yom Tov? Is it Shabbat? Is it Chol HaMoed? And do I need to cook again? (I could have sworn I cooked enough food to feed the entire community for an entire month—but I digress.)
And while celebrating these days in Tishrei, we also run the gamut of emotions—it is a true emotional roller coaster. From awe to some fear and trepidation, from anxiety to relief and joy, from intense happiness to contemplating the meaning of life and back to happiness again. These intense contrasts- we find at every turn.
Let’s look at the beginning of our Torah reading today, V’zot HaBracha. It begins with Moshe giving blessings to most of the tribes. These blessings, unlike the one that Yaakov gives to his sons at the end of Bereisheet in Va’yachi, are all very positive. Moshe knows he won’t be going with B’nai Yisrael into the land of Israel and despite some of his worries expressed in the earlier parts of Devarim, he does his best to send them off with a blessing. It is noted (by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and others), that these verses are ones that —especially lainers- all know by heart, but don’t know what they really mean because the language is so difficult. But suffice to say, their purpose is to give encouragement and strength to all of B’nai Yisrael for their upcoming conquest of the land of Israel. The complicated poetry emphasizes each tribe’s unique military capability, sometimes in graphic terms.
Of Yehuda he says: may God ‘…help him from his foes.’ (33:7) ועזר מצריו תהיה
Of Levi he says: in addition to doing holy service and teaching B’nai Yisrael, God should bless and ‘…favor his undertakings and smite the loins of his foes; let his enemies rise no more. (33:11)
…בָּרֵךְ ה׳ חֵילוֹ וּפֹעַל יָדָיו תִּרְצֶה מְחַץ מׇתְנַיִם קָמָיו וּמְשַׂנְאָיו מִן־יְקוּמוּן׃
About Yosef -the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe:
“…He has horns like the horns of a wild-ox; With them he gores the peoples, the ends of the earth one and all.” (33:17)
בְּכוֹר שׁוֹרוֹ הָדָר לוֹ וְקַרְנֵי רְאֵם קַרְנָיו בָּהֶם עַמִּים יְנַגַּח יַחְדָּו אַפְסֵי־אָרֶץ…
About the tribe of Gad:
“…Poised is he like a lion, To tear off arm and scalp.” (33:20)
…כְּלָבִיא שָׁכֵן וְטָרַף זְרוֹעַ אַף־קׇדְקֹד׃
Dan is described as the גור אריה , the lion’s whelp (33:22)
The chapter ends with a battle cry- ויאמר השמד – By His Command: Destroy! (33:27)
And the final cheer:
אַשְׁרֶיךָ* יִשְׂרָאֵל מִי כָמוֹךָ עַם נוֹשַׁע בַּיהֹ׳ מָגֵן עֶזְרֶךָ וַאֲשֶׁר־חֶרֶב גַּאֲוָתֶךָ וְיִכָּחֲשׁוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ לָךְ וְאַתָּה עַל־בָּמוֹתֵימוֹ תִדְרֹךְ׃
O happy Israel! Who is like you,
A people delivered by ה׳,
Your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant!
Your enemies shall come cringing before you,
And you shall tread on their backs. (33:29)
You can almost hear the military legions clamoring and shouting with a triumphant B’nai Yisrael storming into the land. חזק חזק ונתחזק!!!
But the Torah ends with a literal funeral- with the death of arguably the most important character in the Torah, the greatest leader of the Jewish people—
ולא קם נביא עוד בישראל כמשה…
– there has been and there will be no leader for the Jewish people like Moshe ever again. (34:10) .
There is a debate among Chazal as to who wrote the last lines of the Torah that describe Moshe’s death and burial. (See BT Bava Batra 15a and Menachot 30a) .
One opinion is that Yehoshua, in assuming his role as the next leader of the Jewish people- wrote the last lines. (Bava Batra 15a)
…דְּתַנְיָא וַיָּמׇת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה׳ אֶפְשָׁר מֹשֶׁה מֵת וְכָתַב וַיָּמׇת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה אֶלָּא עַד כָּאן כָּתַב מֹשֶׁה מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ כָּתַב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ…
…as it is taught in another baraita: “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there” (Deuteronomy 34:5); is it possible that after Moses died, he himself wrote “And Moses died there”? Rather, Moses wrote the entire Torah until this point, and Joshua wrote from this point forward;…
The more heartbreaking interpretation believes that Moshe wrote the last lines himself with tears staining the scroll as he wrote- or perhaps the tears themselves served as the ink.
…מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר וּמֹשֶׁה כּוֹתֵב בְּדֶמַע…
…From this point forward, with respect to Moses’ death, the Holy One, Blessed be He, dictated and Moses wrote with tears… (Bava Batra 15a)
Regardless, it is a gut wrenching end to our sacred narrative. The juxtaposition of the rousing cheer of B’nai Yisrael to its mourning of Moshe, one of the saddest moments in the Torah —from great joy and triumphalism to abject grief and loss— is startling. And now, we will do our best to recover —and continue this ride on the holiday emotional rollercoaster, to go back to the actual beginning of the story, to Bereisheet. The beginning of everything from the Creator who has no beginning, middle or end. The Master of the Universe who dares to create space in the world for Human beings through which His Torah will be transmitted and live. How does this whole process of reading help us to revel in the joy of our Torah? How does this public reading lift up Simchat Torah?
I always see this day as the greatest yet strangest parade. Imagine the legions of the Tribes —one glorious float after another and then, in the middle, a somber funeral procession. And then the finale with an intense fireworks display, a Big Bang (see what I did there) with all in attendance, full of awe and gratitude for life on earth.
Keep in mind, all of this is happening at the extra end of the holiday of Sukkot— as Simchat Torah in the diaspora is really the second day of Shemini Atzeret- the eighth day of assembly. Whereas on Sukkot there were seventy sacrifices given each day for all the nations of the world to get the rain and sustenance they would need to survive- on Shemini Atzeret one sacrifice was given to signify the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. I like to call Shemini Atzeret the special Sukkot after party.
And remember, that Sukkot is our happiest holiday— זמן שמחתינו- the time of our happiness. The Sukkah represents not only B’nai Yisrael’s temporary structures used while traveling in the desert, but also the ענני הכבוד- the Clouds of Glory, the protection from HKBH. Sukkot, therefore, is seen as particularly joyous for God’s presence on earth, the שכינה, comes a little closer to us. And in all this simcha, in all this happiness, today’s ritual is not the only place of tension and contrast.
This past Shabbat -which was three days ago—- I think- we read the most curious text in all of Tanakh- the Megillah of Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. (This past summer, I had the privilege of learning Kohelet in Jerusalem at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar with Prof. Leora Badnitsky -professor of Judaic studies at Princeton).
In this Megillah , the writer, traditionally seen as Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon— the man who had it all—wealth, wisdom, power and renown- laments that there is really not point to life— that all is fleeting, like breath (as Rabbi Feigelson mentioned on in Drasha on the first days of Yom Tov) . Kohelet boldly proclaims that there is no Divine Providence or Divine Justice. It claims we don’t and can’t know God and that we don’t know what will happen to us. And unlike Iyov, the Book of Job, it does not see any moral purpose to anguish and suffering. Kohelet believes that there is no afterlife or reward for the righteous- that there is no point in life because we are all going to die. Our times of joy are fleeting too.
כִּי אִם־שָׁנִים הַרְבֵּה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם בְּכֻלָּם יִשְׂמָח וְיִזְכֹּר אֶת־יְמֵי הַחֹשֶׁךְ כִּי־הַרְבֵּה יִהְיוּ כׇּל־שֶׁבָּא הָבֶל׃
Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness! (Kohelet 11:8)
There is a debate is to who wrote the last lines of this Megillah— for after twelve dense chapters affirming the futility of life it ends: (Kohelet 12)
סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת־הָאֱלֹקים יְרָא וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי־זֶה כׇּל־הָאָדָם׃ 13
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind:
כִּי אֶת־כׇּל־מַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים יָבִא בְמִשְׁפָּט עַל כׇּל־נֶעְלָם אִם־טוֹב וְאִם־רָע׃
That God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.
After all that, there is a directive to at least follow God and his mitzvot and this will not only add meaning to your life but also will ensure that there will be Divine Justice at the end of your life.
Whether or not these lines were added by the Chachamim — (I once asked my father about this and he responded immediately and said—‘Of course they were added!!) , is not the most striking aspect of this Megillah. Rather, it is that despite this Rabbinic override, Kohelet was left in the canon, it is part of our Tanakh. There is no large Rabbinic rewrite and this unconventional thought piece is allowed to stay, to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the Wisdom literature of our Torah. In this way, the Rabbis left open the possibility in Jewish thought and theology for sometimes sh*t (stuff) (expletive)happens—and there is no making sense of it. It opens up the somewhat frightening idea for some, yet liberating for others, that God maybe doesn’t control everything and there isn’t a Divine plan for everything. It allows for the possibility that this view of life might actually be comforting for people going through hardships.
You might be familiar with the book by my distant cousin, Rabbi Harold Kushner, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People.’ This book emphasizes the part of Kohelet’s worldview that God doesn’t control everything and sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason whatsoever. For me, this view is not very comforting and I find it terribly problematic —but when I was teaching this text for one of my Melton classes— I had a student who told me that this view really helped her when her parent was dying. I guess at that moment, I saw the wisdom of Chazal in including Kohelet , even if they had to add a little bit at the end to make it more coherent with their view of tradition and theodicy.
But even more radical than incorporating Kohelet into Tanakh, the Rabbis decided to publicly read this book on our happiest holiday! While a lot of commentators like to link the idea of futility in Kohelet to vulnerability and the experience of living in a Sukkah for a week, I’d like to suggest something slightly different. The tension of Kohelet, the read of Kohelet that sees it as an absolute downer, serves to elevate the joy we have on Sukkot and Simchat Torah. It is that very contrast that helps us to truly experience simcha. Without that context—without that specific juxtaposition – our joy is simply meaningless.
This week, I had a chance to watch again ,Disney’s Pixar brilliant movie, ‘Inside Out’ (if you haven’t watched it, after Yom Tov, watch it immediately). In this film we are introduced to the inner workings of the mind of a pre-teen girl, Riley. Aspects of her identity and personality- joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust- are personified. They are animated characters in Riley’s brain. Joy works overtime — sometimes the embodiment of toxic positivity— to make sure her girl, Riley, is happy. Joy tries very hard to sideline Sadness at every turn. She tries to make sure that all of Riley’s core memories are good ones. But everytime she does this— tries to move sadness out of the way— disaster occurs. At the end of the film, Joy reviews one of Riley’s supposed happy memories—when her hockey team cheered her as a hero of their game and held her up on their shoulders. Joy scrolls back and sees that right before this happy moment, Riley had been very sad, thinking she had let her team down. Joy has an epiphany and says, “Joy came for sadness”— She understands that Joy can’t be truly felt unless sadness is there as well. Our simcha—on our happiest of holidays— is brilliantly (and somewhat ironically) elevated by sadness and hopelessness. By reading Kohelet, by having a funeral of the most beloved in our celebration of Torah, even by saying Yizkor yesterday on Shemini Atzeret- we can come to truly celebrate. We can come to understand true joy.
I think for many of us— our gathering today— is more joyful because we have experienced the harsh effects of isolation and separation. It is not only that we do not take these moments for granted any more, but perhaps now more than ever, our time together is elevated on a different level. And also, this contrast of the before and after time lets us slowly start to make sense of how bad things really were. It helps us name and quantify our sadness for sometimes we can’t really understand how bad things were until things start to get better. And for all these reasons, our happiness feels different. Now, I hope and sincerely pray that we won’t have to endure a worldwide pandemic to truly experience joy. But because our tradition thankfully has the context built in, we can be certain that our simcha will always have meaning.
A final note on context— there is a famous Rashi as to why our Torah doesn’t begin with the first mitzvah— (Exodus 12:2) Where God speaks to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt:
הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחׇדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה׃
This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. The answer given is that without the entire story before this event, the commandment is meaningless. Without context, there is no way to understand it. As we now go back to the beginning, as we begin Bereisheet, we have the benefit of reading it again— now in context not only of the entire Torah that we’ve read but our life experiences— our joy, our sadness, our triumphs, our disappointments, our anger, our frustrations and even our disgust- and with grounding we can not only experience joy on the highest level but truly have a Simchat Torah.