Unlike the greatest novel, or the most profound scientific writings, or sophisticated literature, there are endless insights, interpretations and life lessons when you study the Torah.
By Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus
The classic Torah commentator Rashi, quotes the Talmud in Sukkah, in regards to the significance of Shemini Atzeret. During the holiday of Sukkot, seventy bulls are offered as sacrifices on the altar (during the time of the Holy Temple), on behalf of the “seventy nations”, which represents the entire non-Jewish population of the world.
After Sukkot, G-d says to the Jewish people, “Make a small banquet for Me, so that I can enjoy your [exclusive] company.” This can be likened to a king who ordered his servants to make a great banquet. When it was over, he asked his dearest friends to arrange a small meal where he, the king, could enjoy their intimate company. So, too, following the offerings for the nations, G-d longs for the company of His own nation. Shemini Atzeret, observed in the diaspora as two days, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, and in Israel as one day, represents the most joyous of Jewish Festivals. What can be more joyous than “quality time” alone with the King of kings, Who is asking to celebrate in an intimate setting with His people Israel?
This Holiday also marks the time when we conclude the reading of the Torah (Deuteronomy- Devarim) in the Synagogue, and begin anew the book of Genesis-Bereishith, with joy, enthusiasm and excitement, as if it is something brand new that we are reading and learning for the first time. One of the great qualities of the Torah is that because it is G-d given, its teachings are timeless and infinite, in the same manner as the Giver of the Torah is timeless and infinite. Unlike the greatest novel, or the most profound scientific writings, or sophisticated literature, when you study the Torah, there are endless insights, interpretations and life lessons, so the joy of concluding the Torah and starting all over again is as genuine as if you are back to “square one”, starting something new all over again.
For this reason, the expression of joy on Simchat Torah is via intense dancing with the Torahs, something we don’t even do on Shavuot, the day we commemorate the receiving of the Torah from Mt Sinai. There could be an argument that we should dance with the Torahs on this Holiday, Shavuot, as an expression of joy for receiving the greatest gift ever given to a people. Nevertheless, it is precisely on Simchat Torah that we dance with the Torahs, because celebrating something that we just “finished” with the fervor that we are starting something ‘’new and fresh’’ can only be experienced with a Torah that is ‘’brand new’’, given anew each day, and containing the Will and Wisdom of the Infinite G-d.
My favorite memories of Simchat Torah are the many years I had the privilege of celebrating the Holiday in the presence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of saintly memory. The Rebbe danced with his brother-in-la (O.B.M.), holding the Torah with such love, and singing and dancing with such infinite joy and fervor, the Rebbe lifted the spirits of thousands of Chassidim and roused them to reach new heights in Torah and Yiddishkeit.
One year, in 1951 (5712), before I was born, a table of Chassidim from Montreal collapsed, with many men landing on the floor in the upstairs study hall of 770, Lubavitch World Headquarters. That’s where services were held, before they moved years later to the basement of 770. One of these men was my father (O.B.M.), and when he stood up, an arm was on his shoulders. It was the Rebbe’s arm and my father placed his arm on the Rebbe’s shoulder. One on one they danced that Simchat Torah for forty five minutes! They stopped because my father got tired; he was 30 years old and the Rebbe was 49 years old! The tune was the Niggun which later became one of the four songs for the Rebbe’s 70th birthday, Kmofes Hayisi LRabim (Psalms 71), but that Simchat Torah, it was a song without words that didn’t seem to end, which is all part of the underlying theme of Simchat Torah, the never ending beauty, depth and messages from the Torah, which are as Infinite as G-d Himself.
When I was in my early years in Yeshiva, some of my Melamdim, teachers of Judaica, shared with me this Simchat Torah story they witnessed with the Rebbe and my father with their own observation: “Had the Rebbe placed his arm on my shoulder, I wouldn’t have danced with the Rebbe’’ (as the Lubavitch custom is not to extend one’s hand to the Rebbe, unlike in other Chassidic circles where Chassidim shake hands (give Shalom), with their Rebbe. For whatever reason, my father accepted the Rebbe’s invitation to dance with him Simchat Torah, and there is no doubt in my mind that this incredible experience made an everlasting impact on my father, his students and all his descendants. May they all live long and healthy years amongst all of Israel (See Hayom Yom Tevet 14.) Dancing with the Torah is also observed while the Torahs are covered in their mantles, in a manner that it is impossible to read the Torah. One might challenge this observance, with the question: “shouldn’t the joy of the Torah be expressed through the study of Torah? How can one study the Torah when it is all wrapped up and covered?”
The joy of Shemini Atzeret (where there is an ancient custom to dance with the Torahs as we do on Simchat Torah) and Simchat Torah however, is specifically expressed when the Torah is closed, and the greatest scholar and the youngest child are equally celebrating the quintessential point and soul of the Torah, that far outshines the various levels of Torah understanding, each person being different based on their knowledge, brilliance , depth and experience, with so many varying levels and degrees of scholarship.
This is another unifying level of joy of this great Holiday. A joy in which all Jews, young and old, scholar and beginner, more observant and less observant, come together equally, dancing with covered Torahs, and actually becoming the “feet of the Torah”, a celebration that not only culminates on Simchat Torah, but a celebration that infuses the entire year with joy, and inspires all Jews to resolve to add to their Torah observance in the year ahead, and to do so with boundless joy. Simchat Torah is a most auspicious time to invite guests and “newcomers” to Torah observance, as a Simchat Torah experience could turn a persons’ life around for the good. May we all invite as many people as we can to celebrate this great Holiday with us, and may we dance this Simchat Torah in Jerusalem, together with Moshiach, now!