'Different heads, same feet'

Sometimes a sliver of anguish assails me during the tumultuous joy of Simhat Torah.

Hanging torah scrolls (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hanging torah scrolls
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One Simhat Torah the wife of the Ba’al Shem Tov saw that his chief disciples were rejoicing and dancing, and drinking a great deal of wine. Worrying for Kiddush and Havdala, she said to her husband: “Tell them please to stop dancing and drinking, for otherwise you won’t have enough wine left.”
The tzaddik smiled and said: “Good point. Go along and tell them to stop, and they’ll go home.”
The rebbitzin opened the door and saw the disciples dancing in a circle, while over their heads hovered a canopy of fire. Thereupon she herself went down to the cellar, and brought them as much wine as was needed.
Sometimes a sliver of anguish assails me during the tumultuous joy of Simhat Torah.
It happens whenever I become too aware of Jewish men standing on the sidelines, passively watching the traditional lively dancing, resisting all polite invitations and rough arm-jerkings to join in. I am not talking about the ones that may have tried participating, but for whatever reason enjoy it more as spectators.
Although I sometimes feel sorry that they are passing up a special opportunity, at least I can assume that they are clear about their options.
What makes me wince is people sitting it out because of a simple yet profound miscomprehension.
“I don’t study the Torah the rest of the year,” they say. “So how can I presume to dance with it now? I don’t deserve the privilege.”
And it is not only the three-times-a-year attendees I hear this from. My attempts to explain the fallacy in their assumption while the dancing is going on are too often skeptically viewed as yet another, albeit subtle, ploy to draft some more dancers, so here is a bid to head off the problem this year by addressing it comfortably in advance.
In one respect they are right: Jews are supposed to energetically study the Torah throughout the year. And in that context perhaps it is possible to distinguish between Jews according to the effort they make, the depth of their understanding, and the knowledge they accumulate.
It could even be that some Jews at the top of this list will feel more joy during the dancing on Simhat Torah than others who have made less of an investment. But that is far from the whole story.
The name Simhat Torah is usually understood to refer to the joy we have in dancing with the Torah. An equally valid explanation, however – and one which is emphasized by the Sisu v’simhu prayer after the dancing – is the joy that the Torah has from us. That is, we do not dance for our own pleasure, we dance to honor the Torah.
Every other time of the year we have the opportunity to honor the Torah by studying it. On Simhat Torah, however, the Torah scroll remains covered!It is not available for intellectual study, only for being rejoiced through our dancing. And while we each attain our own unique personal level in Torah study, when it comes to circling around the Torah together, we are all equal – two feet each!Distinctions based on level of intellect or even commitment are irrelevant.
We just dance. Then the Torah is “happy,” God is happy, and we have a good time too. Afterwards, we should find that the dancing itself arouses us to increase our Torah study efforts throughout the new year.
This article is reprinted with permission from the writer and Ascent Quarterly.