From awe to joy

Simhat Torah seals the season of Tishrei holidays, a group of hagim we collectively call the autumn holidays, ending a festival-intensive month.

Simchat Torah (photo credit: Edward Lear)
Simchat Torah
(photo credit: Edward Lear)
Simhat Torah seals the season of Tishrei holidays, a group of hagim we collectively call the autumn holidays, ending a festival-intensive month.
This has no parallel in other religions, where a single month contains so many contrasting holidays in such a short space of time.
The Jewish calendar puts the beginning of the year in autumn, pointing to the rebirth of nature in rain following the harsh summer of Eretz Yisrael. And with nature, man, too, is reborn.
But unlike the natural world, man’s rebirth is not automatic; man needs to be cleansed from his sins, to be granted the mercy and forgiveness of the Creator of the World.
We are thus locked in the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
These 10 days are filled with awe, as the prayer says – in the New Year our fate will be decided, who by water and who by fire, which of us will meet their doom and which will not. When we read the text of the prayers, we shudder.
As it is not for us to know whether we will rise or fall, we understand that the Jewish concept of heshbon nefesh (self examination) is no laughing matter.
The Jewish New Year is not an excuse for merriment but an occasion for pondering. We hope for the best while rummaging through our memories, looking to the Supreme Judge for clemency. The recognition that man needs mercy is one of the deep truths of Judaism, one it has bequeathed to the monotheistic religions that followed in its path.
And then, from a fearful severity, we make a quick transition (too quick, some say) to a festival of veritable joy.
Succot, despite the reading of the philosophical Book of Ecclesiastes is characterized by joy.
It is not in vain that the Talmud says “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.” The pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the beginning of autumn, when wayfarers smell the sweet fragrance of first showers, is an opportunity to be unburdened from the tension of the 10 Days of Awe.
And at the end of Succot comes Simhat Torah: A simple celebration of pure joy, joy that a year of reading the Torah has come full circle and we start the cycle again.
What is it that we celebrate? The rebirth of the year, the continuation of our Jewish routines; we celebrate the fact that life continues with no interference, and the promise of reaping crops nourished by the first rain; we celebrate living, living far from foreboding verdict, far from the inspecting eye of a judge weighing our actions. Living without fear.
We have thus, in a single month, passed from conducting an account of our existence to a celebration of it, from uncompromising self-analysis to boundless, unburdened joy, joy for its own sake.
The secular among us are also swept in the circles of dance of Simhat Torah, just as before they joined in collective reflection.
In both cases we enter the unique rhythm of the Jewish calendar: Awe and joy are the two faces of existence, awe before judgment and preparation for it, and joy over life, its routine and shock-free movement.
The holidays of Tishrei, the year’s busiest month, symbolize the entire cycle of life. The symbol is difficult, the imagery burdensome. It is for good reason that we say to each other with a sigh of relief, religious and secular alike, “after the holidays.” It is only then that a new year, regular, gray, without drama and without excitement, really begins. 
The writer is a poet and historian.