Simchat Torah: Clydescope to Jewish Life

Simchat Torah is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar that is not mandated in the Bible or by the rabbis. It is a holiday that is entirely custom—a minhag. Sure, the observance of Simchat Torah usually takes place on Shmini Atzeret—on the 8th day of Sukkot in Israel and on its 9th in the diaspora—but it is superimposed on a holiday that already exists. Simchat Torah, with all of its customs and uniquenesses, is a holiday shaped almost entirely by the Jewish people—individuals, families, communities, and societies. 

More than we reflect the reality of this holiday, the holiday demonstrates the reality of who we are. After the rabbis of Babylon established an annual cycle diving the Torah into weekly readings that can be completed every year, this last day of Sukkot was chosen as the axis of completion and beginning. 

Here are the ways in which the day reflects who we are as a people—

End & Beginning Intertwined-the history of our people is filled with tragedies and times many thought it was all over; there were friends and enemies of our people who thought it was over for us, and there were times even we as a people began thinking perhaps it is all over. After the expulsion of the ten tribes by the Assyrians, the destruction of the First Temple, the expulsion of Jews from Judea to Babylon, Hellenization of Judea, the Greek-Syrian oppression followed by Hannukah, the Romans, Spain, the Holocaust, and so many other events in between led so many to believe it was all over. Yet every time it seemed like it was all over, the Jewish people sprouted again. 

Rising from the ashes of destruction and uncertainty, the Jewish people rebuilt themselves with glory and pride. Yet, no matter how meaningful the accomplishment, we cannot allow ourselves to stop. On the very same day we read about Moses passing away and the end of the Torah, we begin the reading of Beresheet and the creation of the world. 

When discussing sources for the extensive celebrations taking place on Simchat Torah scholars finding the basis for celebrating on Simchat Torah, rabbis and commentaries turn to the festivities King Solomon made upon his dream and vision in Giv’on in which God had promised him all wisdom:

“And Solomon awoke, and behold (it was) a dream. And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt offerings, and offered peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.” (Melachim 3:15) 

The Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1) states on this verse: “Rabbi Eliezer says: this teaches us that one makes a medal upon completing the Torah.” The festivities King Solomon held when being blessed with wisdom inspire us to do the same when completing the Torah. 

The irony is that King Solomon did not celebrate completing the Torah; he was merely granted wisdom that would be with him going forward. This teaches us a lesson about completing the Torah. Celebrating the completion of a cycle of Torah celebrates the beginning of a new one. The wisdom we had acquired was merely a stepping stone to more learning. 

When we celebrate the completion of a tractate from the Talmud, or even the entire Talmud as those who complete the entire Daf Yomi cycle do at the end of seven and a half years of study, we say the famous Hadrian prayer. “Hadrian Alach Ve’Da’atan Alach, we will return to you and our thoughts are with you.” We take very completion as something to empower our new journey. 

Children-anyone who has been to a synagogue on Simchat Torah will remember those at the center of the celebration—children. From the little doll Torahs children hold, candy bags for children, some places hosting ice cream parties or the centrality of children to the Simchat Torah. That has been the story of our people. So much of this was exemplified in the Lithuanian city of Vilna in 1945. 

Henryk was a little child, given away by his parents when the Nazis came, to be hidden away as a non-Jew. During the war, 97% of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered. Against all odds, Henryk’s father survived and showed up to claim his child. His child had now spent his formative years as a devout Catholic. Together, they stumbled to Vilna’s great synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah. When they arrived other survivors and Jews began trickling in. The ark of the Torah was bare, and there were no Torah’s to dance with. Suddenly, a uniformed soldier from the Red Army approached them hesitantly. “Is that a Jewish child?” he asked with a humble stutter. “It is,” Henryk’s father said. The soldier was shocked by the very fact that Jewish children had survived the horrors of the war. With his father’s permission, he took little Henryk on his shoulders and began dancing. Slowly, the seemingly lifeless, tired, broken, and grieving survivors joined them in dance until the entire synagogue was filled with song, hope, and joy. This young child moved to the United States and became Abe Foxman, founder of the ADL. The soldier who took him on his shoulders and danced was rabbi Leo Goldman who became the lifelong rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Shomayim in Detroit. Both of their lives have been changed forever by that Simchat Torah. 

 

At the heart of the story of our people is rebirth and our commitment to Jewish education and inspiring a better future. 

Torah at the Center- over the centuries, Jewish communities began the practice of dancing on Simchat Torah. At the center of the dancing and celebrations was the Torah itself. I remember as a child how excited I was to hold the large, heavy, and actual Torah scroll for the first time, just like the grownups. At the center of all our celebrations is the Torah. When the Jews camped in the desert, the entire camp was centered around the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Mishkan as a whole was centered around the Kodesh Hakodashim—the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies itself was centered around the Ark of the Covenant with Moses’s tablets inside. God’s word and the Torah are always at the center of our community. It has been the secret of our existence and our continuity. Putting the Torah at the center of our celebration on Simchat Torah is the Jewish people’s recognition of the centrality of Torah to who we are. 

A story is told about a king who was looking for a husband for his only daughter. Delegates from kingdoms far and wide arrived, suggesting to her princes, dukes, Barons, Earls, war heroes, and great scholars. Yet the king set his eyes on a kind, gentle, and intelligent young tailor. The simple tailer was informed that the king wanted him to marry his daughter. Needless to say, the trailer was shocked. “Why would the king want me of all people?” he wondered. “There must be something very wrong with the princess,” he thought to himself. The wedding plans were quick to follow, and a luxurious wedding between the princess and tailer took place. As they lived their shared life, the tailer saw day after day more and more of the qualities of the princess and that there was nothing wrong with her. One year after the wedding, he asked his wife to make another big party in honor of their marriage. “Why a year later?” the princess asked. The tailer explained to her that when the king asked him, the simple tailer, to marry the princess, he thought it must be because she was not fit for the other princes and nobles. 

Now that he has been married to her and sees all her qualities, he sees that indeed she is a perfect princess and realizes how lucky he has been and wants to recelebrate his marriage to her. 

On Shavuot, the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai, but they did not have much of a choice. On Simchat Torah, we rejoice with great joy since we got to complete the entire Torah and know its beauty pleasantness. 

Joy- our love for the Torah we express on Simchat Torah is coupled with the joy with which we celebrate it. So overwhelming is the imperative to rejoice that even though there is a rabbinic prohibition on dancing on Shabbat and Yom Tov, in the case of Simchat Torah, it is waved so all can engage in singing and dancing. Joy has been what carried the Jewish people through the most difficult of times. 

It was in 1967, at the height of Soviet persecution of the Jewish people. The Soviets had armed Israel’s enemies and instigated war. Jews inside Russia were persecuted and excluded. Israel’s stunning victory in the war was celebrated by Jews in Israel and around the world, while Soviet Jews had to hide their joy and who they were. Then came Simchas Torah of 1967. 

As Moscow was preparing to celebrate 50 years to the October revolution, thousands of Jews filled the streets. They were not headed to celebrate in front of the Kremlin; they were headed to Moscow’s great synagogue. The synagogue was filled to capacity, and thousands were outside on the street. The people broke out in song, “Am Yisrael Chai” and “David Melech Yisrael” melodies filled the hearts and souls of everyone there, ushing a renaissance of young Jews who would commit to moving to break the Iron Curtain, moving to Israel, and leading proud Jewish lives. Since then, the holiday of Simchat Torah with all the Jewish joy and pride it represents has become central to the lives of young Jews and many Jews from the former Soviet Union. 

Joy has carried us through the generations and is there for embedded into the fabric of the holiday of Simchat Torah. 

Simchat Torah is a clydescope to Jewish life. From the centrality of Torah, children, education, joy, and new beginnings, this day—with its various minhagim— has come to reflect our story as a people through the generations. Let us use this beautiful day of Simchat Torah to practice, reintroduce, and reinforce all of these themes into our lives with joy and celebration. Chag Sam’each! 

 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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