Parashat Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah

Parashat Shmini Atzeret/

etrog 248.88 (photo credit: )
etrog 248.88
(photo credit: )
One could suggest that the Jewish calendar establishes two celebrations for two aspects of the Torah. The Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) in the spring marks the Revelation at Sinai. But that was an external Torah, given amidst an "external extravaganza" of thunder and fire and the sound of the shofar. On Yom Kippur, Moses received the second Torah, but this time in the lonely splendor of intimacy with the Divine. Indeed, the sages of the Midrash teach that the first Torah did not include the Oral Law, which can only be "heard" and extracted by those privy to the inner voice of the Torah - its secrets. It is not by accident that the first tablets were broken, whereas the second set will last forever. It is not by accident that 40 days after the first Revelation the Israelites worshiped the Golden Calf whereas the second Torah remains our eternal symbol of Divine love and forgiveness. These two Torahs, the outer and the inner, are expressed in the K'tiv and Kri of the Torah as we experience it. The K'tiv literally means the "writing" - the black letters in the Torah Scroll. The Kri is the way tradition requires us to read those letters. One might say that the K'tiv is the external Torah and the Kri is its internal counterpart. I would submit that on Simhat Torah we celebrate the inner or Oral Torah, the Kri. Joy, or simha, also has an external form and an internal essence. Our Torah mandates that during the Festival of Joy, the holiday of Succot which leads directly into Simhat Torah, we take leave of our fancy homes and expensive furniture and move into what appears to be a primitive hut. The message is clear: True joy is not a function of what we have but rather of who we are. It is a measure of our desire to welcome the Divine Presence and the result of hosting Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David in our succa. In the words of the psalmist: "One thing, I ask God, and only this do I request: Allow me to live in the house of God all the days of my life." This message is underscored by the etrog, which is one of the four species we must bless during the Succot festival. Interestingly enough, the etrog is biblically described as the fruit of a beautiful tree. Externally speaking, beauty is usually thought of as that which is fresh and expensive. Our sages identify the etrog as beautiful because it remains on the tree from year to year - that is, it is faithful and constant, and because the taste of the tree and the fruit are the same - that is, its offspring retain the same qualities as their forebears. The etrog teaches the lesson of internal beauty. Finally, on Simhat Torah we read of the death of Moses. Moses's life also has a K'tiv and Kri, an external form and an internal essence. From a simplistic external perspective, one might conclude that Moses was a tragic personality. His goal had been to take the Israelites into the Promised Land, but he departs from the physical world without even a monument to mark his grave. The truth, however, resides in the Kri of Moses's life. It was Moses who spoke with God face-to-face as it were, and forged a slave people into a God-infused nation. We celebrate the Torah even as we read of Moses's death because for us Moses never died; his grave is unmarked because, through the words of the Torah, he lives and we live eternally. Moses resides in his inner message, the Torah which remains his eternal legacy. It is this Torah over which we rejoice on Simhat Torah. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.