A dance of joy

There is an essential difference between the concept of inheritance and that of betrothal or engagement.

Celebrating Simhat Torah at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Celebrating Simhat Torah at the Western Wall.
On Simhat Torah, which marks the end of Sukkot, congregations around the world do hakafot – joyful dances carrying the Torah scrolls. This joy is connected to the order of the Torah reading every Shabbat. Every year we complete an entire cycle of reading the five books of the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy on Simhat Torah. We are happy and express this joy, because we were privileged to complete another cycle of reading and learning Torah and begin another.
We complete the cycle on this festive day with the reading of the last weekly portion, Vezot Habracha and begin immediately with the first portion of Breishit.
Vezot Habracha describes Moses’s parting from the People of Israel prior to his death, upon which the writing of the Torah comes to an end. The leaders that follow him will write the books of the Prophets, but the Torah is “Moses’s Torah” alone.
Moses’s parting from the Jewish people is moving and is accompanied by blessings, praise and wishes of the great leader. He describes some characteristics of the Jewish nation in general and of each of its tribes in particular.
At the beginning of his blessings, Moses poetically depicts the amazing event that took place some 40 years earlier at Mount Sinai, when the Torah was given to the Jewish people and established our national identity.
In one particular verse of Moses’s final address, the Torah commands us as the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4). This verse has undergone an interesting process in Jewish tradition. Upon simple reading, it describes the Torah as Israel’s legacy. The use of the word “inheritance” expresses the basic and inextricable connection between the Jewish nation and the Torah. A person who inherits something from his parents does not need to justify his ownership of it.
But our sages say something quite to the contrary in the Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2: “Perfect yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance to you.”
It is easy for us to relate to this as well. Indeed, despite the natural connection between the Jewish people and the Torah, this is not information we are born with. On the contrary, we must prepare ourselves to learn Torah, to open our hearts and minds, to learn to listen to its subtle melody, to be sensitive while uncompromising in learning Torah, since the Torah is not something passed by inheritance.
A father can be brilliant in Torah, but his son can be far from it. It depends on how much each of us invests in learning Torah.
There is a third facet added to these two. On the one hand, Torah is indeed a legacy, an inheritance; and on the other it isn’t. This is revealed to us by the sages of the Talmud: “Moses commanded us a law [Torah], an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. Read not morasha [inheritance], but me’orasa [betrothed] (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, Page 57).
The Torah, say these sages, is not an inheritance, but a betrothal. They compare the Torah to a bride who has made the decision to tie her fate to that of her beloved. The couple must step forward as a couple, get married, and commit to one another to live a shared life in every aspect.
The engagement is the initial and partial connection, but it is the seed slated to blossom and grow into a long and happy life of two parts who found each other and became whole.
There is an essential difference between the concept of inheritance and that of betrothal or engagement. Inheritance is a natural connection that does not need justification, but is a connection of ownership and control, a one-sided connection of a person to an asset.
Engagement is the complete opposite. The connection between two people is not natural. It is accompanied by hardships and challenges. It requires justification and continued effort, and therefore it is not a connection of control but of partnership; a two-sided relationship between one person and another, between one heart and another.
When the sages described the Torah as a bride engaged to Israel, this is what they were referring to. Indeed, to know the Torah and learn it requires effort. It is a challenge that demands our devotion and focus.
But the relationship that ensues from this devotion is not one of a person with an asset. It is a living, active relationship. A person who learns Torah regularly begins to feel a partnership with it, a partnership with God. The relationship between the Jewish nation and the Torah is a relationship of love and devotion – two parts that found one another and became whole.
When we finish reading the Torah and begin a new cycle, joy erupts, hearts sing, and our legs can’t stop themselves from dancing. We hug and kiss the Torah, dance with it, and promise to stay loyal to it forever.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.