Simhat Torah: Why Jews should look in the mirror now

This analysis of a midrashic text is obviously not intended as a comment on or opinion about the recent United States Supreme Court decision.

 ‘THE FEAST of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy’ (1850) by Solomon Alexander Hart. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE FEAST of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy’ (1850) by Solomon Alexander Hart.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of my favorite midrashim is in the Talmud in Tractate Niddah, page 30b.

Here is that midrash along with some comments. (Words that are generally not capitalized but which have been capitalized here are not typographical errors. “Life,” for example, is not, as Danny uses it, the same as “life.”)

RABBI SIMLA’I delivered the following public Torah lesson:

What is the fetus like in its mother’s womb?

  1. A candle burns on its head (which no doubt explains why some pregnant women experience heartburn).
  2. [And by that candlelight] it sees from one end of the world to the other (it is informed that it will live Life in the Big World Outside and not in splendid isolation).
  3. The days in the womb are the best that a human being experiences.
  4. The fetus is taught the entire Torah [by that candlelight].
  5. Just as it emerges into This World, an angel comes and slaps it on its mouth and makes it forget all the Torah it had learned.
  6. It does not leave the womb until it is made to swear an oath. And what is that oath? “Be a good person [be a Mensch] and do not be a bad person.”
Simchat Torah at the Kotel (Western Wall), Jerusalem, October 2018.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Simchat Torah at the Kotel (Western Wall), Jerusalem, October 2018. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

On Simhat Torah, because of all the people dancing holding a Sefer Torah, we momentarily mistakenly (and innocently) think the holiday is about the joy of the Torah scrolls. Important and holy as they may be, we are celebrating the content, implications and development over centuries of the words contained in those scrolls, and their study.

THERE ARE clearly two ways to look at Torah study.

1) Since Torah study is a mitzvah in and of itself, Torah lishma – Torah for its own sake – is one valid understanding.

This approach is exemplified by the thousands of Daf-Yomi Jews around the world who have committed themselves to studying the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page a day for seven years plus another 153 days, to cover the 2,111 double-sided pages. 

Over the course of more than two millennia, Rabbinic Judaism (aka “Oral law”) replaced biblical Judaism as a way of life. This has often led to a hierarchy of a scholar’s quantitative Torah knowledge as the main criterion for determining one’s actions. The term talmid chacham (a person well-versed in Jewish texts) and its various configurations are mentioned thousands of times in the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic literature.

2) In fact, the numbers and frequency are so overwhelming, a Torah student might understandably miss others who were held in high esteem. Here are just three examples.

  1. Tov ayin – A good eye. A person who is tov ayin has a good eye, or according to my friend Rabbi Jonathan Porath, one who is always looking for the good in others, takes precedence over a Kohen (descendant of the priestly class) or Talmid chacham to lead Birkat Hamazon, the blessings after meals. (Sotah 38b, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 183:7)
  2. Adam Kasher – A “kosher” person, a Mensch. Refers to someone who lives a life of the highest Torah ethical standards, often without referencing the person’s ritual practice. An Adam Kasher’s value is demonstrated most strikingly by this statement: “Whoever weeps and mourns for an Adam Kasher, all of that person’s sins are forgiven because of the honor that person showed for the deceased.” (Mo’ed Katan 25a)
  3. Gvar d’chil chata’in – A person who is afraid to do wrong but not out of fear of punishment (sometimes used as a synonym for Mensch). The following story clarified this person’s position in rabbinic society.

Rabbi Simon and Rabbi were once sitting, when Rabbi Ya’akov Bar Acha walked by.

One of them said to the other, “Let us rise, for he fears wrongdoing [a synonymous phrase for a ‘menschlich person’].”

The other one said, “Let us rise, for he is a person who knows a great quantity of Torah.”

He replied, “I just told you that he is a menschlich person, and you tell me that he is [only] one who knows a great deal of Torah?”

Back to the Midrash

The best days of its life in the womb are as a result of a combination of elements. Having learned so much Torah and having been shown life in all its parts, good, bad, beautiful, cruel, moving, embarrassing – everything possible – it is ready to enter the world confidently because it is fortified by its commitment to be a Mensch, to do good, to play an active role. Indeed, something must have terribly disturbed the sage Rava when he stated, “See how foolish people are. They stand before a Sefer Torah but do not stand before a great person.” (Makkot 22b)

“See how foolish people are. They stand before a Sefer Torah but do not stand before a great person.”

Makkot 22b

The members of his community must have been sidetracked, prioritizing the Thing – sacred as it was – the Torah – for the human beings who had internalized its words (in Rava’s opinion, a gross misplacement of values).

In the mirror

Particularly as Simhat Torah approaches, we should look in the mirror. OK, check to see if there are deeper wrinkles than the week before, if the beard is nearly trimmed or if the make-up and eye shadow have been applied to your liking. Yes, that too, but focus for a moment on the philtrum – that notch over the lip. That is the reminder the angel left on your face when you were slapped, and made to forget the Torah you learned (but it is still there, just waiting to be retrieved), and to remind you of your commitment to menschlichkeit.

This analysis of the midrashic text is obviously not intended as a comment on or opinion about the recent United States Supreme Court decision.

Danny Siegel is a writer, lecturer and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American communities, to communal organizations, synagogues, JCCs and Federations, on tzedakah and Jewish values. He is the author of 30 books, including the recently published Radiance: Creative Mitzvah Living (Jewish Publication Society). The Ziv Tzedakah Fund he founded in 1981 distributed more than $13 million to worthy individuals and projects until it ceased operations in 2008.