Simchat Torah:The Culmination of the Days of Awe
On Shemini Atzeret, we put aside all the symbols of Succot that have been so prominent up until now. We don’t take the lulav and etrog. Unlike other holidays, there are no special rituals on Shemini Atzeret. It is the time when we simply come close to celebrate on one final day with G-d. In the famous parable, it is as if the king invited all the nations of the world to celebrate. For seven days, amid much pomp and circumstance, the king and his guests partook of the formal celebration. On the last day, however, after all the guests have gone home, the king invites his family for an informal celebration in the kitchen. It’s a time of closeness and intimacy with G-d. This is Shemini Atzeret.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah occur on the same day. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, combining the somber yizkor (memorial prayers for the departed) with the unrestrained joy of the hakafot. In chutz la’aretz, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on two different days. (Technically, however, Simchat Torah is the second day of Shemini Atzeret that must be observed in the Diaspora just as all Festivals in the Diaspora have two days). It must be noted that the Torah nowhere indicates that we are to finish the Torah in an annual cycle and it certainly does not specify that the completion date should be Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Linking the completion of the Torah to the festive holiday was a practice that was instituted many centuries after Sinai as a way of enhancing and increasing our joy. This, however, raises a number of questions.
First, why do we celebrate the Torah now, rather than on Shavuot, the anniversary of our receiving it? Second, why should we even be allowe d to celebrate our love for the Torah on Shemini Atzeret? Chazal generally prohibit celebrating two joyous occasions on the same day. Thus we’re not allowed to have weddings on Chol HaMo’ed, so that one rejoicing doesn’t take away from the other. Why then should we celebrate the completion of the Torah on a day when we already are commanded to rejoice?
Starting with the second question, one might suggest that there is no problem of mixing joys on this day, because what we celebrate on Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah is our closeness to G-d, and the uniqueness of our relationship. The means by which we achieve that closeness is the Torah. The Torah is also the expression of G-d’s love for us. Torah is both the reason for that closeness and the expression of it. There is no contradiction then, in celebrating Shemini Atzeret by celebrating the Torah because ultimately the joy of relationship and the joy of Torah are one.
As for the first question, on Shavuot we did indeed receive the Torah. But the nation that received it was one that had reached, at least for that moment, the forty-ninth level of purity. We had recreated the state of Adam and Eve before the sin. At that moment death was banished from the world. We received the Torah on Shavuot in a state of purity, sanctity and righteousness. But we couldn’t maintain that state. Before Moshe even came down from Sinai we had fallen to the depths with the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe came down and broke the Tablets, and had to return again to plead for us; G-d wanted to destroy us and begin anew with Moshe.
G-d forgave us on Yom Kippur, and we received a new set of Tablets. This second receipt of the Torah was different from the first. This was the Torah of the ba’al teshuva, the Torah not of perfection, but of a flawed people who had yet been forgiven. And this – and Moshe’s dropping of the first Tablets – is what we celebrate on Simchat Torah. We celebrate it with such passion because, while none of us could achieve the perfection the nation achieved on Shavuot, all of us are guaranteed the Torah of the ba’al teshuva. This is a Torah we cannot lose, no matter what we do, no matter how far we stray. This is the Torah as our birthright.
This understanding lies deep within each Jew, and it is the reason Simchat Torah strikes a chord with so many. In Soviet Russia in the eighties, at a time when Jews feared to practice their religion, there was one day in which they took to the streets as Jews without fear of the consequences. This was Simchat Torah. These were people who observed and knew almost no mitzvot, and yet they danced. This is the power of Simchat Torah.
Our dancing on Simchat Torah is more than dancing. It is a way of breaking barriers between us and G-d. This is the meaning of hakafot. According to Kabbalistic teaching, we circle seven times because this is a way of breaking barriers and destroying walls. Thus, the walls of Jerichofell after being encircled for seven days. This is one of the reasons a bride circles her groom seven times – to break the barriers that people inevitably have between them. On Simchat Torah we are using the Torah to break barriers between us and the Shechina. The Vilna Gaon used to say that the Shechina itself rests on the bimah on Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah is an echo of that future time when the righteous will circle the Shechina, pointing, “this is the One we hoped for.” For this reason the Vilna Gaon would not allow anyone on the bimah during Simchat Torah. It is the place of the Shechina.
Finally, when we do the hakafot we are making a type of vow to G-d. Someone once complained to a Rabbi that he had not been honored with the privilege of holding a Torah during the dancing. The Rabbi told him that when one holds the Torah on Simchat Torah in a hakafah, he is making the strongest vow a person can make, a vow on a Torah Scroll. The vow is that he will live his life according to the principles of the Torah. But a person is a living Torah Scroll, and so we should think the same way about carrying our children in a hakafah. We are pledging to raise them according to the principles of the Torah.
This is the power of the hakafot, and the power of Simchat Torah. The great mashgiach of Mir, Reb Yeruchem Leibovitz, zatzal, once said that he didn’t know which was more powerful spiritually – the praying on Yom Kippur or the dancing on Simchat Torah. Both have the power to break barriers between us and G-d. Through love, joy and unity we can redeem ourselves and the world.