The essence of Simchat Torah: interpreting the values of Torah

What is fascinating is that the first classification of something being holy is time, and not a place or an object.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
In a famous incident from the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a), a voice from heaven, a bat kol, “cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halacha (Jewish law) agrees with him?’”
In this case the issue was a dispute over the kashrut status of a particular oven belonging to an individual named Aknai. A voice from heaven would seem to close the argument. However, that was not the case, as “Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven,’” quoting from Deuteronomy 30:12. The Talmud then asks, “What did He mean by this?” to which Rabbi Jeremiah explained, “The Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because You wrote long ago in the Torah (Exodus 23:2) at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline.’”
This remarkable passage is empowering, radical and chutzpadik. It captures the essence of Simhat Torah when we celebrate the joy and responsibility of Torah in our lives. Yes, we have been given the Torah! But what are the guideposts to decide how to interpret its values to apply them to our lives?
A piece of the answer can be found in the well-known episode in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) when Hillel profoundly summarizes the Torah as, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” It is a variation on the line (Leviticus 19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That is to say, kindness and love are guideposts for us. Hillel’s answer is helpful, but it is based on the orientation and viewpoint of the individual.
Hillel offers a more universal perspective and guidance in the Mishna (Pirke Avot 1:12 and 2:5) when he teaches, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving God’s creatures, and bringing them close to the Torah,” and “Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place.” With these statements peace and empathy are added to kindness and love as our guideposts.
In Eruvin 13b we find another account from the Talmud that can also be helpful in our search. There we read, “For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halacha is according to our position,’ and the other said, ‘The halacha is according to our position.’”
A HEAVENLY voice again emerged and said, “‘These and those are the words of the living God, and the halacha is according to the House of Hillel.’ A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: ‘Both these and those are the words of the Living God,’ why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s opinions first.” With this passage we are reminded once more of the quality of kindness in our decision-making process as well as of the importance of being gracious.
In the section of the Talmud concerned with fasts we again meet Rabbi Eliezer from the Aknai oven discussion. There (Ta’anit 25b) we learn about a response to a severe drought and the prayers offered by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to end it. In Akiva’s prayer we find his words Avinu Malkeinu that were eventually placed in the High Holy Days liturgy, and it is his prayer that is answered with rain. To this the Talmud wonders, “[Why was] Rabbi Akiva answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not?”
Again, a heavenly voice emerged and said, “It is not because this sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.” Here forgiveness is added to our list.
Finally we read in Baba Metzia 85a, “One day the maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was sweeping his house. There were young weasels lying about, and she was in the process of sweeping them out. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi said to her: ‘Let them be, as it is written: “The Lord is good to all; and His mercies are over all His works”’ (Psalms 145:9). They said in Heaven: Since he was compassionate, we shall be compassionate on him, and he was relieved of his suffering.” Compassion and mercy become part of our compass of decision making.
At the end of the second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says to Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This is why our choices are so important.
We can glean from these rabbinic narratives a web of filters that create a litmus test to help guide us in our decision-making of choosing what we do. If a choice can’t pass through the sieve and filter of kindness, love, peace, empathy, graciousness, forgiveness, compassion and mercy, it should give us serious pause about whether it is the correct choice.
On Simhat Torah we begin to read the Torah again. At the beginning of Chapter 2 of Genesis we are told about Shabbat and how God called it holy. What is fascinating is that the first classification of something being holy is time, and not a place or an object. In a discussion of this at the beginning of this semester at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a student insightfully commented that a place or object are not necessarily accessible to everyone, while time on the other hand is available to all. This reminds us, particularly as we start the new year, how we use our time is in our hands including the choices that we make. In that light we can elevate and understand the choices we make as a holy act.
The writer is rabbi emeritus of Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and at Bennington College.