Two major days when we rejoice around Torah: Shavuot and Simhat Torah

As the story goes, the congregation selected the town fool to receive the high honor of being the chatan torah – the groom of the Torah.

Celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It is well known that in the tradition of the Jewish holidays, there are essentially two major days when we rejoice around the concept of the Torah – the first being Shavuot and the second Simhat Torah.
An obvious question can be asked: Why do we need two separate days which might seemingly acknowledge the same concept – and what differentiates the two days from one another?
To answer that question, I would point to a generations-old parable which is told around Simhat Torah. As the story goes, the congregation selected the town fool to receive the high honor of being the chatan torah – the groom of the Torah. This honor usually goes to a person of prestige and academic accomplishments who has earned the distinction, which involves being called up to the Torah for the final reading of that year’s cycle.
As the fool prepared to accept the honor bestowed upon him, someone shouted out from the back of the synagogue, “What right does this man have to be the groom of the Torah!? He barely even knows his bride and has certainly never taken the time to understand what she’s all about.”
Like all good parables, this one, too, has a deeper meaning and goes a long way to answer our original question.
Simhat Torah is a holiday that is not confined to any level of achievement, and indeed, very little is asked of us. There is no regimented course of study like on Shavuot, where it is customary to stay up all night learning the sacred texts. For that matter, the Torah reading of the day is not instructional like the Ten Commandments read on Shavuot.
It’s rather a holiday of basic happiness. We are acknowledging that we love the Torah regardless of whether we know it or not – and even whether we are prepared to keep it or not.
Our connection to the Torah is not about what we have accomplished or how well we can do on a specific test, but rather who we are as a people.
IN OUR contemporary world, and certainly in the Jewish society of Israel today, we deserve these types of simple reminders, and the inspiration of days like Simhat Torah.
All too often, we make the mistake of assessing a Jew’s attachment to their religion based on their levels of knowledge and observance. And while there are certainly aspects of tradition that require academic achievement and in-depth understanding of Jewish law and practice, we are failing as a society when we limit ourselves only to this school of thought.
If we are to successfully expand our reach as a Jewish society to ensure that each and every Jew can find his or her place, then we need to remind ourselves that the Torah was intended to serve all of us.
The modern world has presented us with daily challenges in this regard and admittedly they are succeeding in tearing our nation apart. There exist factions of Jewish society, particularly here in Israel, that believe that those who practice religion differently are not worthy of our attention. This school of thought advances the belief that those who don’t conform to a specific way of life, or don’t yet embrace halacha, should not be regarded as legitimate voices in how the Jewish nature of our state is fashioned.
The lesson of Simhat Torah is that this approach is painfully ill-advised and is harmful to our interests as a nation. Jewish tradition does not allow us to solely judge a person on what they have done in the past; we must instead live with an understanding that every Jew, regardless of whether they are an academic scholar, religious or secular, deserves the chance to be embraced and welcomed into our community.
In this sense, Simhat Torah is a holiday of Jewish unity. And in celebrating this day, may our prayers be realized that the coming year should be one where Jews are welcomed and embraced – regardless of what we have accomplished or to which camp or community we belong.
The writer is the chief rabbi of the city of Shoham and the co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, an organization that works to bridge the gaps between religious and secular Jews in Israel by encouraging a more informed and compassionate understanding of issues of Jewish tradition and identity.
Through its network of volunteer rabbis, Tzohar aims to diffuse the tension between the rabbinic establishment and secular public, and has notably been responsible for thousands of halachic marriages that might otherwise have been conducted abroad. In 2018, Tzohar opened a private food supervision authority to provide kashrut supervision as an effort to introduce competition and transparency to this field, which directly impacts upon the Jewish way of life in Israel today.