“The Season of Our Rejoicing: Simchat Torah”
By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D. – President, AJRCA
We can hardly appreciate what it must have been like to celebrate the fall harvest festival with a journey to Jerusalem. Bearing fruits from one’s harvest, going up, literally, to the hills and the great temple, possibly seeing rain clouds gathering after the summer dry season, and gathering with one’s family and friends from other villages for a week. The rabbis of Mishnaic times – who may have heard of this from their grandparents – said that one cannot imagine the joy.
Occasionally we have joyous times like that, usually at family events. At the time preceding Rosh Hashanah, my husband and I were blessed to have all our children and grandchildren here for two weeks as we prepared for and celebrated our oldest son’s wedding. The excitement of preparation, the last-minute shopping and visits to the dressmaker, bringing food to the synagogue for the aufruf, finally gathering everyone into cars for the trip to the wedding site (thankful for the cooler day!), hugs and warm greetings to friends and relatives not seen for years, experiencing the many connections and deep friendships our son has made over his lifetime, and then the dancing and more greetings. A season for rejoicing indeed. A taste of Jerusalem joy?
Yet, the ecstasy of the temple pilgrimage is not entirely replaceable, even when we have happy gatherings in the sukkah, at home or in synagogue. The rabbis replaced it with newly defined holidays at the culmination of the season of joy, the festival of Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah – one day in Israel, two in the diaspora. The 8th day is usually a quietly happy day, perhaps with one more round of guests in the sukkah (without the brachah). But the synagogue is just getting started. Simchat Torah brings the dancing and singing, helped along with plentiful libations.
The night’s parties are lively in some communities, rivaled only by Purim; in others more subdued. In the daytime, the celebration adds rabbinic flavor with many readings, as one person or group after another is called up for an aliyah from the Torah. The hint of a wedding is in the titles given to those who have the closing and the opening readings from the Torah: Chatan Torah, Chatan Bereishit. The Torah is the bride, and the readers represent us, the Jewish people, who after 7 days under the chupah / sukkah now seal the ceremony.
Parties we understand. But how can we prepare with kavannah for this event? What does it mean to marry the Torah? How can the Torah become a living being to us?
We can start by remembering that each day, we speak of her “when we lie down and when we rise up.” She is that close. When we came out of Egypt – remember just last Pesach at the Seder? – we ran from our oppressors, trekked through the sea and came to her at Sinai, where we recited the covenantal words: We will do this, and we will understand. Like a lover whom we marry and only years later come to understand, we began with just doing things together. We ran into some trouble, some considerable disagreement over the parameters of this relationship: when you can do as you please, following your feelings of the moment — and when you can’t. It almost broke things up, but we started again at Yom Kippur. The parsha read this week, for Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot, includes that story of how G-d taught Moshe how to repair, how to ask for forgiveness.
Forty years later, Moshe said to us, “God has not given you a heart to understand until this day.”
Forty years to understand?
Whether it’s five or forty, perhaps Simchat Torah offers an occasion to think about our own journeys with Torah, since we first realized she meant something to us. How we thought we understood, but there was a lot more to learn. About all the wondrous things that happened because we were together, how precious life seemed as we opened up its meaning. How, for a time, we became consumed with other things that seemed more important in our lives, and then turned back to her. How we now recognize so many familiar things as we circle through the year together, and also continue to have delightful surprises.
Every year it’s an anniversary. We can celebrate it large and loud like a wedding, or it can be quiet and reflective. But to greet the Torah with a smile and an embrace — so glad we met, so glad we’re together, so happy for what we’ve been given the grace to create and to learn.