One of the many customs of Simchat Torah is that of chatan Torah, the title given to the person who is called up to the Torah to receive the very last aliyah of the Torah.
The term chatan is an evocative one. To be a groom of the Torah means to be married to the Torah. And from a woman’s perspective, it is worth noting that in recent years, in women’s tefilah groups and partnership minyanim, the practice has been adopted to call up a woman as kallat Torah, a bride of the Torah. To be married to the Torah, whether as a man or woman, is to have an enduring, intimate, powerful bond with the Torah, just as marriage is ideally meant to be.
But this is not completely accurate. For the terms chatan and kallah do not refer to husband and wife, but rather to bride and groom. To be a bride or groom is to be at the cusp of marriage, in a state of eirusin, betrothal, when the couple has made a formal bond with one another but have yet to begin to live together and know each other intimately.
The Rabbis tell us, in fact, that the word morasha which appears in this week’s parsha – Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Ya’akov, “the Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob” – should be read not as morasha, an inheritance, but as m’orasah, a betrothed woman. The Torah is not a wife or husband of many years; it is the man or woman to whom we are engaged but have not yet married.
There is a power in imagining what it means to be betrothed to the Torah. For it is often the case that it is at this stage of the relationship that the feelings are felt the most intensely, there is a flush of emotions, there is fascination and curiosity, a sense of the erotic, of the unknown and of discovery. One does not just feel love for the other at this stage: One feels in love.
This is indeed a wonderful time in one’s life, but it cannot last forever. Nor is it meant to. To move from engagement to marriage is to know that to have a deep and meaningful relationship, to build a family together and to live with each other day to day, means that the fire of passion will often have to give way to the warmth of the hearth. The love that becomes solid and enduring may have to be a little less exciting and stimulating.
Of course, a marriage without any passion and excitement can become stale. We need sparks to keep the fire alive. We want to remember and re-experience what it was like to be a chatan and kallah. This does not happen by itself. It takes work. Married partners must find ways to surprise one another, to do things differently, to go on new adventures, to undertake new things together – to continue to find out more about each other, and more about themselves.
The Rabbis tell us that the words of Torah should be totally fluent upon our lips, we should have total knowledge of and intimacy with it, ready to answer any question that is asked. Yet in another place they tell us that every day we should approach the Torah as if it were just given to us today, as if it is totally new and we have a world of discovery before us. Far from being contradictory, these two statements embrace the dynamic that we all seek – to be married and betrothed at the same time, to have a deep relationship together with the excitement of newness and discovery.
When we call up the hatan Torah to finish the Torah, we are saying that this person who is finishing the Torah represents mastery of the Torah, is the husband of the Torah, and yet at the same time, he is a hatan, today is his wedding day, today he has become betrothed to the Torah. He or she is ready to begin a path of discovery all over again, to get to know Torah as if for the first time, to see the world being created and be astonished, to follow Avraham on his journey, to be with the Israelites in Egypt in their suffering and in the thrill and rush of the Exodus, and to experience all of this with fascination and awe.
In our learning of Torah, there can be so many moments of discovery and wonder if we make the effort, if we allow ourselves to be open to seeing things anew. If we can do this, then when we re-read the Torah, it will be like we are seeing it for the very first time – as if it were given to us today.
As we begin to start a new cycle of Torah reading, let us try to be betrothed to the Torah. Let us try to make it a year of being fascinated by what we don’t yet know or understand, curious to find out more, eager to discover fresh insights and ideas. Perhaps we can pick a new Torah commentary to read, or perhaps we can learn some new area of Torah – piyyut, kabbalah, Rambam’s philosophy – something that we’ve never looked at before, something that can surprise us and fascinate us.
Right now, many of us find ourselves feeling challenged by being around our spouses and loved ones 24/7. This constant presence can be beautiful, but it can also be trying. I mean, we love them, but some time apart can be good not only for our own emotional health, but also for the relationship. When we are apart for a little while, there can be a charge and excitement when we come back together.
So this year, let’s try to reconnect, just a bit, to that time when we were engaged, when we were just getting to know one another. Let’s commit to doing something new to do together – and I do not mean watching a new show on Netflix! Let’s learn how to paint together. Let’s go bike riding together, watch cooking shows and try to make the same dishes at home, listen to a lecture series or read the same novels and make time to discuss them. Maybe, let’s even learn some area of Torah that we’ve never learned before, together, so we can bring the passion of bride and groom to our learning of Torah and to our deep, abiding and enduring relationship with one another.