Simhat Torah: Ending and beginning – Torah without stop

In this way, we acknowledge that even if we completed the yearly cycle of Torah reading, we still have much more learning in store.

A SIMHAT Torah flag, waved jauntily during hakafot. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A SIMHAT Torah flag, waved jauntily during hakafot.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Following seven days of Sukkot, we celebrate another holiday that stands on its own. The original name for this holiday is Shmini Atzeret. This is what it is called in the Torah and how we refer to it in the prayers of the day. But nowadays it is better known as Simhat Torah. (Outside Israel, these two names remain distinct and are celebrated on consecutive days, while in Israel they are on the same day.)
What is the meaning of the name Simhat Torah (literally – the Joy of the Torah)? One of the most ancient regulations determined in the history of the Jewish nation is that of reading the Torah. Every Shabbat, during prayer services in the synagogue, the Torah scroll is taken out of its ark and a section is read from it. Over the years, this Torah portion was called “Parashat Hashavua,” the weekly portion. For the past almost 2,000 years, the Jewish nation has been arranging this Torah reading in a yearly cycle so that every year we finish with the final portion of the Torah – Vezot Habracha – on Simhat Torah; and on the very same day, we start reading the Torah anew with the first portion of Bereshit. With this arrangement, the entire nation reads all five books of the Torah every year, thus gaining a strong and stable basis for our personal and national lives.
Reading the Torah by portions is, as mentioned, an ancient custom. The Talmud says that Moses determined this tradition of reading the Torah every Shabbat and on two days during the week. Maimonides wrote in his book, Mishne Torah: “Moses decided that Yisrael should read the Torah in public – on Shabbat and on Monday and on Thursday during Shaharit morning services so that they would not be three days without hearing Torah” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tfila, chapter 12.)
In the midrash we find a description contrasting two personalities: a despairing skeptic versus a rational and calculating person. The sages of the midrash describe a person entering the synagogue and seeing the congregation learning Torah. He asks them: “How does a person learn the entire Torah?” and they answer, “First he reads the megillah, and then the book, and then the prophets, and then the scriptures. When he finishes the scriptures, he learns the Talmud and then Jewish law and then Aggadot.” The midrash continues: “After hearing this, he said to himself, ‘How can I learn all that?’ and retraced his steps.” He is scared of the huge scope of the Torah, and decides to abandon the mission and remain ignorant.
In contrast to this person, the midrash describes someone else: “He who is smart, what does he do? He learns one chapter every day until he finishes the entire Torah” (Deuteronomy Raba, chapter 8.) He who is smart understands that it is impossible to cover the entire Torah in a short time. But it is possible with regular diligence and persistence. One chapter, and then another, and finally he can accomplish the mission he took upon himself.
Simhat Torah is a holiday in which we express our joy about the privilege of completing the five books of the Torah, through diligently reading one chapter after another, one portion after another, week after week.
In contrast with this, Rabbi Yishmael, among the greatest sages of the third generation of Tana’im (in the second half of the second century), saw completing the Torah as a mission no one could fulfill. “You do not take it upon yourself to finish the entire Torah, but (despite this) you are not free to abandon it” (Avot of Rabbi Natan, chapter 27.)
Rabbi Yishmael’s approach is that the effort to advance spiritually must not be dependent on the end point. Even if we can never complete the entire Torah, we must make the effort to gain its wisdom. This is because each and every chapter or portion is an unparalleled gain.
We must recognize that even if we complete the five books of the Torah and celebrate this accomplishment, this does not mean we have nothing left to learn. Additional parts of the Torah await us and delving deeper into what we have already learned is a mission of a lifetime. For this reason, the celebration would not be complete if we stopped learning on Simhat Torah.
Because of this understanding, immediately upon completion of reading the Book of Deuteronomy on Simhat Torah, we start reading the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. In this way, we acknowledge that even if we completed the yearly cycle of Torah reading, we still have much more learning in store that we must see as an intellectual and spiritual accomplishment like no other.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites