Simhat Torah: the happiness of the Torah. The name itself seems quite ironic this year, does it not? For what kind of Simhat Torah will it be in many places around the world? Will we be able to gather in synagogues, which have now been shut down? And even if we do assemble in legal, outdoor minyanim, how can we dance in Hakafot, circles, holding hands, when that violates the social distancing rule? And what of the custom of giving aliyot to all present? That would add a significant amount of time to the service and create a huge hardship in the Indian Summer heat. And that beautiful tradition of gathering all the children under one huge tallit for a communal blessing? Clearly a no-no in corona times.
In short, as we bid farewell to one of history’s most unusual, unorthodox Sukkot, the very soul of Simhat Torah has been winnowed down to a shell of its former self.
I have the fondest memories of Simhat Torahs past. Growing up, this was a one-off opportunity to lay aside the formality and strict decorum of the shul, as we danced with abandon and were even given “shots” of whiskey by the elderly members to fuel our spiritual engines. At our yeshiva in Skokie, we would sing and dance until the wee hours, stopping traffic as we spilled out into the neighboring streets. Later, as an NCSY youth adviser and synagogue rabbi, I would lead groups of teenagers for hours on end this night, showing them just how raucous and rewarding Judaism can be if you live it right.
Years later, Simhat Torah would forever be frozen in our memories as the last time we rejoiced with our beloved eldest son Ari z”l, who came home from the army for Simhat Torah on a rare leave during the Second Intifada, and would fall in battle against Hamas terrorists the very next day. In my mind’s eye I can still see Ari proudly holding the Torah aloft, above his head, as he danced around the room. And now, due to Health Ministry restrictions, this will be the first time in 18 years that we cannot gather at his grave to celebrate his life and cry at his loss on the anniversary of his death.
In the face of all this, what good, what joy, what strength and solace can we take with us into the days and months ahead? How can we temper our disappointment and depression over what we have missed over these past weeks with a semblance of hope and inspiration?
ON SIMHAT TORAH, we begin anew the next cycle of Torah readings with an account of the beginning of the universe. There we are told, regarding the formation of Man, “male and female He created them.” The commentators interpret this strange verse quite literally; the first person was androgynous, a back-to-back single being that was comprised of both a male and a female. At some point, the two were separated and destined to eventually find each other and mate.
Now, how they could possibly reproduce in their original state is in itself puzzling. But my question is, why did God create them as one entity only to later divide them, literally, into “split personalities?” Why not create them separately from the very beginning?
The answer, it seems to me, is to give both male and female added motivation to find one another again, for you don’t know what you have until you lose it. Because Adam and Eve once were bound together, and knew the intimacy and splendor that this gave them, they would not rest until they could reclaim that spiritual and emotional level once more. Indeed, it was the very loss of that pristine splendor that spurred Man and Woman on, forever more, to recapture the glory that once was.
In his commentary on the Yom Kippur liturgy, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik records the passion and excitement he felt as he read of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on the Day of Atonement as he prayed for the salvation of the nation. This passion reaches its high point in the prayer, Mar’eh Kohen, which describes the glow of the Kohen as he emerges from the Holy of Holies, bathed in light “like the morning star in the East, like an angel.” But then, suddenly, the mood drastically changes as we bemoan the loss of the Temple: “Now we no longer have the offerings, the showbread, the altar and the ark; the Master of the Temple has been reduced to a guest at an inn.” And we then read the martyrology, the murder of Israel’s leading Sages.
Why this drastic denouement?
Says Rabbi Soloveitchik: “In order to truly feel a loss, a person must internalize how wonderful life was before the loss, and how terrible life is after the loss.” Only then can we appreciate what we once had, and work hard to reclaim it.
A rabbinic commentator suggests that Sukkot immediately follows the High Holidays so that if, God forbid, we have been found guilty of sin, then leaving our expansive homes and moving into our modest sukkah constitutes a form of “exile” that serves as our expiation. But this year, that sense of exile has been multiplied many times over. During the course of the lockdown, we have experienced the loss of communal prayer, the curtailing of life-cycle events, the inability to come into physical contact with our loved ones or travel within our beautiful country, and even restrained from paying proper respect to those we’ve lost.
If there is any blessing to be found in all this, it can only be to heighten our sense of gratitude and appreciation for what we once had – and what we, God willing, will have again.
And that moment cannot come too soon.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. email@example.com