This week the holiday of Succot concludes with the joyous day of Simhat Torah. On Shabbat we will conclude the cycle of Torah readings for the year and begin again the never ending cycle of reading the Torah. Simhat Torah is the most joyous day of the Jewish year, rivaling only Purim for holy revelry and good cheer.
Simhat Torah is a wholly Jewish made holiday consisting of ancient customs and folkways developed over the centuries. It appeared in its present form in the middle of the 14th century in Europe and the customs associated with it - the hakafotwith the Torah scrolls, the hatan torahwho reads the last verses of the Torah, and the hatan bereshitwho reads the first verses of the Torah - soon spread throughout the Jewish world.
The holiday is a living testimony of the love of the Jewish people for the Torah. For over three millennia the Jewish people has willingly sacrificed everything - life, treasure, position, acceptance by the world society - for the preservation and perpetuation of its Torah. The Torah is not a book, a piece of literature or a document of purpose for the Jewish people. It is in the words of our daily evening prayers "our lives and the length of our days."
It is nothing less than that. Hence our love for it and our fierce devotion to it and its values and principles. Without understanding and appreciating the attachment of the Jewish people to Torah one can never really understand the true principles of Judaism and a Jewish way of living.
Our enemies and persecutors understand full well the importance of the Torah to the Jewish people. The tormentors of Israel over the centuries have always delighted in defacing and destroying Torah scrolls. However, the Talmud already described the futility of such vandalism.
Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon, who was burned to death by the Romans while he was wrapped in a Torah scroll, stated: "The parchment burns but the letters float in the air." A Torah scroll is holy but its letters and words, its message and teachings, its unchanging message of God's will is even holier.
The struggle against the Jews that has been waged by evil forces for millennia is really a struggle against our Torah. And it is our steadfastness in treasuring and observing, studying and defending our Torah that so frustrates our enemies. Job said "even if You will kill me I will still hope unto You." The Jewish attitude towards Torah is an excellent example of this statement.
The more intense the effort of our enemies to prevent the Jews from a Torah way of life, to ban its study and punish those who observe its tenets, the greater the tenacity and love that the Jewish people show towards Torah. One has only to visit the dozens of yeshivot and schools here in Israel, in the United States and in Russia itself, to realize how the Torah has defeated another enemy - atheistic Communism - and consigned it to the ash heap of history. Love for Torah is part of the DNA makeup of the Jew.
Jewish mothers in Eastern Europe used to serenade their sons to sleep with a Yiddish lullaby entitled "Torah ist dabeste schorah - Torah is the best commodity." Rabbis, heads of yeshivot, teachers used to always wish that their sons would remain "in the family business." Torah scholars and scholarship were the most respected recipients of community honor and favor.
Jews were proud of the accomplishments of their Torah scholars and felt fortunate to have such people live in their midst. Thus even Jews who were not scholars and perhaps not even literate in Torah and Talmud nevertheless rejoiced on Simhat Torah. They saw the day as a family holiday, inclusive of every Jew. And even if this gene of Torah proved to be a recessive one for a number of generations, as happened to many Jewish families in the 19th and 20th centuries, it often reasserts its presence once more in a later generation.
It is heartening to see the rebirth of Torah education and study in all areas of Jewish life in our time. So let us all rejoice together in the happiness of having the Torah gene within us. It guarantees us eternal life and purpose.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com)