Commentary for Simchat Torah

2 Oct

In many ways, Simchat Torah is a very strange holiday. For one thing, its festivities are not in any way biblically ordained. While we are commanded to rejoice in the Torah, the idea of having a special day where we dance with the Torah and celebrate finishing one cycle of reading and starting a new one was invented by the Rabbis and added on to the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. Once Diaspora communities sprung up and started to celebrate two days of holidays instead of one in order to make sure they covered their bases and were celebrating at the right time, Simchat Torah was split off from Shemini Atzeret and rather than celebrate both parts of the holidays for two straight days, we split them off and do Shemini Atzeret stuff (such as Yizkor and the prayer for rain) on the first day and do Simchat Torah stuff (dancing, finishing, and restarting the Torah) on the second day. This, in turn, has lead to a very unique situation where Jews in Israel have adopted a custom developed specifically for the Diaspora, going out and dancing with the Torah on what would be the beginning of Simchat Torah in the Diaspora, at which time the combined Simchat Torah/Shemini Atzeret in Israel would have already ended.

Simchat Torah also has some parts to it that appear a little strange conceptually. For example, the big moment of the holiday is when we finish reading the last parshah in the Torah, and then go start reading from the beginning again to symbolize that there is no end to what we can learn from the Torah. But then for the haftarah we read the beginning of Joshua, which picks up right where the end of the Torah leaves off. If the point of the holiday is that we are going back to the beginning of the Torah, why are we reading the part of the story that comes right after the end?

In discussing the idea of finishing the Torah and then immediately starting from the beginning again, much has been made of the fact that the last letter of the Torah, lamed, followed by the first letter of the Torah, bet, brought together in this never-ending chain of reading the Torah, spell the Hebrew word “leiv,” meaning “heart,” which symbolizes God’s eternal love for us, and our love for God and the Torah.

Much less has been made of the fact that the last letter of the Torah, lamed, followed by the first letter of the book of Joshua, vav, spells the Hebrew word “lo,” meaning “to him.” The first two verses of the book of Joshua firmly establish that the mantle of leadership, and with it the story of the Jewish People, has now been passed to him. The first verse in the much later Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot similarly establishes the passing down of the mantle of the Torah and the spiritual leadership of the Jewish People from Moses to Joshua to the succeeding generations.

On Simchat Torah we celebrate and show our dedication to both of these concepts. We sing and dance with the Torah, and upon completing it we immediately start to read it again, showing the idea of leiv: our eternal and continuous love for God and this precious gift of Torah that God has given us. And in doing so, we- us here today- welcome and celebrate the idea of lo: that the spiritual future of the Jewish People and the responsibility to safeguard the Torah lies in our hands.

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