Simchat Torah 5778

Rabbi David Stav 

Perhaps one of the Jewish people’s most unique – and bizarre – holidays is Simchat Torah. I often ask myself what possesses both young and old to encircle the bima at the synagogue in a never-ending frenzied dance, sweat pouring off their faces. What gets them going? Why are they dancing at all? What has made them so happy?

And then, immediately after the holiday ends, it’s déja vu, as the dancing resumes in the city streets. Many gather to dance around the Torah scroll, including those who do not regularly visit the synagogue. What do so many people participate? In fact, even they may find it hard to tell us what inspires their joy on this day.

If we look a bit deeper, we will discover that the roots of this holiday’s current character are relatively recent, and it is unclear how it all started. In the Torah, the holiday is mentioned as the last day of the Sukkot festival. Some call it Shemini Atzeret, while other use its simpler name: “Chag, “the holiday”, with no embellishments. Indeed, if we read the Torah, we’ll find no special commandment specifically associated with this festival. In Israel, we no longer sit in our Sukkot or wave the Arba Minim. It seems to be a nondescript holiday.

Our Sages imbued the word “Atzeret” with a unique meaning, teaching that the word is an expression of God’s longing for His people. After all the commotion that came with the seven days of the Sukkot festival, when the entire nation went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, everyone just wants to set out on the long journey home, going back to the routine of the long winter season, a time bereft of holidays, as we bear down for the long, cold nights.

Just then, God says to His children: “Wait! Before you leave me, won’t you just stay for one more day?” That is the essence of Atzeret – no special commandments, and no extra baggage. It is just a time to spend together, to talk, and to rejoice over our connection.

The Torah leaves us with a festival devoid of any distinct or well-defined character. Our rabbis understood that this day is a manifestation of God’s love for His people. The Jewish nation has returned the love to its Creator, in deciding to make this day a time when it expresses its joy and love for the Torah and its Source.

In antiquity, Jewish communities read a section of the Torah every Shabbat, completing the entire Five Books of Moses every three years. This reading cycle dates to a Mosaic decree, as Moses wished to make the Torah the patrimony of the entire nation, rather than that of a select few. Consequently, the reading cycle was extended to a number of years, and no date was set for celebrating the completion of the cycle. However, later, during the time of the Babylonian exile, the Jews began completing the annual reading of the Torah just after Sukkot, and the idea of designating the last day of Sukkot as a day of Simchat Torah, a day to rejoice in the Torah and a type of end-of-the-year party, emerged.

Among the nations, there are surely those who mark the day their nations adopted its constitution, but nowhere else will we find people dancing around with a book of laws. Other communities of scholars have the custom of performing a ceremony of sorts upon the completion of their studies, while others might set the volume on the shelf of a used book store or in a library, for future reference. No one else begins reading the book anew, without delay.

We dance with our constitution. And once the very last verses of the Deuteronomy are recited, we immediately begin reading from Genesis. In so doing, we seem to be saying, “We haven’t simply finished a book and thrown it aside. Rather, we will immediately reread it!” This is truly a party in which we can all take part.

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