In Plain Language: The living Torah

I remember, as a child, being lifted up on the shoulders of the men in the synagogue, rising to “new heights” in a raucous celebration that lasted for hours and hours.

October 1, 2015 15:03
Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem

Men dance with Torah scrolls at the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem. (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)

Simhat Torah! The very name of this unique holiday, which comes at the end of Succot, conjures up delightful images of exuberant dancing, kids marching with flags, and entire congregations embracing the Torah.

I remember, as a child, being lifted up on the shoulders of the men in the synagogue, rising to “new heights” in a raucous celebration that lasted for hours and hours.

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I wasn’t all that aware then of what Simhat Torah symbolized, but I knew that it was great fun – with lots of candy and smiles – and I looked forward to it all year long. As with most spiritual events, the experiential came long before the educational; I internalized the essence of the holiday well before I understood its deeper meaning.

But now I can also relate to the underlying message of Simhat Torah. It is, first of all, a celebration of our new lease on life. The Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur are now behind us, all the heavy prayer, the fasting and breast-beating is over. We have – hopefully! – been granted another extension of our stay here on Earth, and so it’s time to lighten the atmosphere and let out all our pent-up angst and anxiety in a burst of spiritual ecstasy.

This is the one day in the year when all Israel marches, as if in a grand parade, hora-circle style. We march each morning of Succot, lulav and etrog in hand. And we march seven times on Hoshana Raba, the day prior to Simhat Torah. And then, accompanied by the soundtrack of universal Jewish song, we go round and round in seemingly endless hakafot on both the evening and morning of Simhat Torah.

In those rings of dance, the themes of unity and commonality are expressed.

As we circle around the Torah scroll, everyone is equidistant from the center, an indication that each and every one of us has an equal share in the learning, lessons and legacy that the Torah offers to our nation. Proficiency in Torah is neither imposed nor inherited; each Jew has to want it for himself and herself, has to pursue it and – as the famous verse prescribes – take firm hold of the handles of the Tree of Life. The wholesale distribution of aliyot, the honors of ascending to the Torah, is another unique feature of the day that reinforces this all-important concept that the Torah is for everyone.

My rabbi once asked me, “What exactly does the name ‘Simhat Torah’ mean?’” When I shot back a puzzled look, he said, “The literal meaning of ‘Simhat Torah’ is, ‘the happiness of the Torah itself.’” And he then elaborated: “Our Torah is neither a dead document nor a sterile story, frozen in history like any common work of literature.

It is rather a Torat haim, a living Torah! Not only does it contain all knowledge – past, present and future – but the Torah actually has feelings, it has emotions, no less than does a human being. It can cry, it can be sad, it can even be angry and upset; but on this one special day, the Torah is boundlessly happy!” An amazing concept, is it not? And it led me to thinking about what the Torah might feel at certain times.

I think the Torah feels discouraged when it is ignored and neglected, when its vast wisdom is not accessed and its many secrets not fully plumbed.

It has so much to offer, so much to teach, and it waits patiently to be unrolled and explored. It beckons to every student, silently pleading to be opened and employed. Is there any greater source of frustration than having a talent or a great idea, and not having anyone with whom to share it? I think the Torah feels hurt when some members of the faith selfishly claim it as theirs alone, as if it is reserved for only the privileged few. No one has a “lock” on either the Torah or on God, no one can claim exclusivity to the Torah’s mantle or mystery.

That is why we say there are 70 prisms to Torah knowledge, with countless interpretations and nuances. We call these nuances hidushim, new and innovative approaches to the ancient text. As more and more doors to the beit midrash open up, more and more wisdom pours forth from the parchment.

Yet at the same time, the Torah also must feel resentful, even indignant, when – as Ethics of the Fathers cautions – it is used as someone’s personal spade with which to dig – i.e., a tool for one’s own self-aggrandizement, or to advance one’s own personal agenda. Placing the Torah at the center of a cause, even a righteous one, cheapens both the Torah and the cause itself, impugning its dignity by placing it in the middle of a social, political or even religious dispute. There must always be a reverence, an awe – a “distance,” as the army calls it – that reminds us of the holiness embodied by the Torah.

But the Torah must feel very proud and honored when people rise in respect as it is lifted, or even when it just shows its face as the ark is opened. It certainly must shep naches when the children gather round it, approaching it with wonder and reaching out their hand to lovingly touch it.

The Torah must be smiling broadly with satisfaction when it is read from properly, when care is taken to gently cover and “dress” it so that it always maintains a most dignified appearance.

What I think most pleases the Torah is when it feels confident that it is never going to lose its special place in our society.

It basks in glory, perhaps even crying tears of joy, when it is reassured that generation after generation, it is going to continue to be revered as the repository of God’s revealed word, and that its timeless message will reverberate all the way from Moses to the Messiah.

The Torah has accompanied us and guided us through all the highest highs and lowest lows of Jewish history, from the cataclysmic moment when it was “brought down” at Mount Sinai, to the pogroms and Holocausts when it was desecrated and degraded, until today, when it enjoys an unparalleled renaissance of Jewish learning.

The crowning moment of Succot – a holiday associated with joy, about which the Torah itself says, “You shall be only happy!” – comes as the Torah watches millions of its adherents dancing in pure, unbridled love, affirming our undying loyalty to it.

I suggest that it is precisely this emotion – the knowledge that we will always be together – that prompts the Torah to dance with us even as we dance with it! ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]

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