Painting by Yoram Raanan.
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Simhat Torah is the last holiday in the string of Tishrei festivals that begins with Rosh Hashana, continues to Yom Kippur and Succot, and ends with Shmini Atzeret following Succot. Outside Israel, Shmini Atzeret is followed by Simhat Torah, while in Israel they are on the same day.
What is this simha, the joy and happiness that we are celebrating? Every Shabbat, we read a parasha from the Torah, and on this day, we complete all five books of the Torah. We celebrate this completion with a huge celebration, with singing and dancing. The interesting timing of Simhat Torah begs the question: Why was it arranged so that completing the reading of the Torah comes out at the end of the series of holidays? Is this a coincidence? To answer this, we must get to the root of the connection between the People of Israel and the Torah. There are those who see the Torah as a book of directions and life guidelines. According to this outlook, the Torah is a way for us to know how to act in the world – what is permissible and what is forbidden; what is the moral path by which we should navigate our lives. This is undoubtedly true, but whoever looks at the Torah with this perspective alone misses the main point regarding the connection between the People of Israel and the Torah.
The truth is, the Torah is the closest thing to God that we know. It is an amazing essence of the Creator’s wisdom and ways. When we study Torah with the knowledge that it is a gift from God, we bring ourselves closer to Him and to His wisdom. To be clear – studying Torah is not a means for getting closer to God. Learning itself is getting closer to God. Because the closest thing to the Creator that can conceivably be reached is the Torah.
To delve deeper into this idea, it is important to know what the great thinker and rabbinical authority Maimonides said about the wisdom of God. According to him, many people are mistaken and imagine the Creator – like people they know – as an entity that has life and wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. He Himself, His knowledge and His wisdom are one and the same. His personality cannot be analyzed as segments. Based on this, and since the Torah represents for us the Creator’s wisdom and moral compass, when it is studied and when we walk in its path, we get closer and closer to God’s wisdom and goodness, which are God Himself.
In the past, the People of Israel had other ways of getting close to God. There were prophets who conveyed His word to the nation or to individuals, as needed. There was also a Temple and the worship that took place there. On Yom Kippur, for example, the High Priest had special and sacred jobs in the Temple accompanied by the prayer and blessings of masses of Jews who were present. At the peak of these jobs he would enter to burn incense in the Holy of Holies, the sacred site of the Tablets of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments. Our sages say that on this day, a piece of red yarn would be tied to the entrance of the Temple and at a certain point of the Yom Kippur service, it would miraculously turn white, as in the verse: If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow. Obviously, the entire event brought about immense closeness between the People of Israel and their Father in Heaven.
Sadly, after prophecy ceased and the Temple was destroyed, there was no possibility of getting so powerfully close to the Creator other than studying His Torah and letting it illuminate our path throughout our lives.
The period of the holidays is a wonderful time to get closer to God. At the beginning we pray to Him during the days of mercy and penitential prayers, peaking at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Then we take pleasure in His shadow during Succot, when we try to recreate our forefathers’ booths as they wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. These succot, these booths, represent God’s tremendous spiritual and material embrace during this time.
How nice and appropriate to end this period with the joy of completing the Torah! All this magnificent closeness to the Creator reaches its peak with the great celebration of the strong connection we have with God: His holy Torah! There is no better time to celebrate the end of the annual cycle of completion and beginning of the five books of the Torah than at the end of this unique month. The celebration is not merely a completion and beginning anew, but a mark of the incredible power of the eternal and inseparable triangle: God, the Torah, and the People of Israel. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.