The Joy of Torah

 

(This first appeared on the front page of the Jewish Press, October 21,2016.)

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the awe of Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry. The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Succot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah. This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance that pertains in many (but by no means all) shuls.

Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.

Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah? Of course, one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning. And rather than going back to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.

And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue today that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life that have now been frozen by a stultified Rabbinate. Well, not quite. The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Succot. Every day of Succot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah, we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read. Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”

After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with the Torah, or even kissing the Torah when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.

One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves. Sometimes, we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.

It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to G-d’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to G-d’s will rather than expect G-d’s will to conform to our needs.

Not long ago, a Yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings. And this conclusion accounts for the genuine pain many people feel over their circumstances, which is quite often heartbreaking and should always evoke our empathy. It takes into account the pain of families wrestling with this challenge. But the greatest reality – the one that governs our lives – is the reality of G-d’s existence and the laws of the Torah He gave us.

So the world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many Jews have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if our young people today had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality and forced conversions. Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat. Imagine if kosher food was not readily available in every supermarket, and there weren’t kosher restaurants aplenty to satiate every palate. Imagine if they had to travel hundreds of miles to use a mikveh, as some Jews in the former Soviet Union had to do. Imagine if they were denied the right to learn Torah under the penalty of death. Just imagine…

They should be thankful to have such a “formidable” challenge as the one they claim to have, even acknowledging that it is serious and often tragic. But we should wonder whether or not we are doing an adequate job in educating our young people that Torah sometimes requires sacrifice or pain or struggle, and observance of the Torah sometimes means that we cannot always get our way.

Not every desire can be reconciled with the laws and morality of the Torah, even if the zeitgeist decrees that you can always have everything you want, how you want it and when you want. It is just not true. That is when we show our love for Torah by surrendering to G-d’s will.

Just because young and modern people disagree with something in the Torah does not make them right and the Torah wrong. Perhaps, indeed, it is the reverse. One would think that a primary focus of Jewish education today (in truth, I assume it is) would be to impart to children the reality of life as G-d mandated it to us. Only G-d’s vision of mankind is real – not anything that we concoct. Only G-d’s morality can preserve mankind’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Only the truths of Torah can remind man that he is created in the image of G-d and has been given the tools with which to best serve G-d, perfect his soul and enjoy life on this planet.

Again, without trivializing anyone’s pain or the struggles they confront, it stands to reason that if we investigated every generation going back to ancient times, young people in every generation undoubtedly found something to take issue with in the Torah. When all their peers were worshipping idols, or marauding, or carousing, or eating any type of food, or enjoying the weekend (not Shabbat), or reveling in every new discovery and every act of rebellion against their elders, or when they saw their peers pursuing their life’s dreams and desires unfettered by any external restrictions – it is not difficult to envision that many of them felt spiritual “challenges” as well. Those who overcame them are our illustrious ancestors in whose merit we exist today. Those who succumbed to them disappeared into the mist of history and were lost to our eternal people.

Every generation thinks it is reinventing the wheel and faces trials that no one else had before. In truth the wheel grinds on, and in every age Jews confront obstacles to the observance of mitzvot and the love of Torah. What we can never do is measure the worth or viability of Torah by contemporary standards of morality. If we ever did, among other problems that would not be a Torah worth sacrificing for or even dancing with.

On Simchat Torah in the Torah reading, we indirectly reference the famous Mechilta (Parshat Yitro) that every small child is taught: “And He said, ‘Hashem came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Se’ir, appeared from the mountain of Paran…” (Devarim 33:2). To whom did G-d appear? The Midrash states that the nations of the world would have protested the giving of the Torah to Israel, so G-d first offered it to them. “He revealed Himself to the children of the wicked Esav (Se’ir) and asked, ‘will you accept the Torah?” They answered with a question: “Mah k’tiv ba?” What is written in it? G-d answered “You shall not murder,” and the children of Esav responded that homicide is a legacy from their ancestor, and so they rejected the Torah.

Ammon and Moav were also approached and asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Told there are restrictions on lascivious behavior, they too declined, for their nations were founded on acts of immorality. The children of Yishmael were also offered the Torah and also asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Informed of the prohibition “You may not steal,” they too protested. “Our forebear was blessed with this special talent, and so the Torah is not for us.

Conversely, when the people of Israel were offered the Torah, we answered “whatever G-d says we will do and we will obey,” “naaseh v’nishma” (Shmot 24:7). We did not ask “Mah k’tiv ba?” We accepted the Torah without investigation (even impetuously, as Rava, the great Amora, was taunted by a heretic, in Masechet Shabbat 88a) and only because we trusted the Lawgiver to give us a Torah that would guide us through life properly, satisfy every legitimate human need, and perfect our souls. We accepted the Torah unconditionally, even though to us it was an “aish dat,” a fiery faith that is not easily handled. We trusted G-d who is compassionate and merciful and knows the best way for man to live.

Some are still asking “Mah k’tiv ba?” – What is written in it?” – and conditioning their acceptance of the Torah on whether or not the commandments of the Torah suit them, their friends, their personalities, their business practices, their own moral conclusions, their family lives, their politics and their proclivities. But those whose acceptance of the Torah is predicated on “Mah k’tiv ba?” will never fully accept the Torah. They are substituting their morality for

G-d’s and, in effect, worshipping themselves.

Is that something to celebrate? Maybe on one’s birthday but that is not the meaning or import of Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate not the giving of the Torah but its incorporation into our lives and our profound joy in being entrusted with G-d’s eternal message for all of mankind. At the very least, we should feel an unlimited sense of gratitude along with the rejoicing.

How can we impart to younger Jews – raised in a world in which narcissism is considered normal and even healthy, and feelings matter more than truth or substance – the spirit of sacrifice, the nobility of surrender to G-d’s will, or the willingness to embrace moral notions that are Divine and objective but contrary to the prevailing norms?

Perhaps we can enlighten them as to the great people in our history who celebrated, loved and lived the Torah when it was not as easy as it is today: Rabbi Akiva (and countless others) who forfeited their lives to teach the Torah to the simple laborer who after a day of toil attends a shiur; parents who retain as their primary ambition in life raising children who love, respect and will learn the Torah; and communities that will faithfully transmit it unaffected by the winds of modernity that are gusting through others.

Those individual giants and committed communities have sustained us until today and will continue in the future. And we should underscore how every Jew has a share in that Torah, community and destiny if only he or she embraces them, a Torah that is “our lives and the length of our days.”  That is the true and enduring celebration of the Torah.

Chag Sameach to all!

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5 responses to “The Joy of Torah

  1. Wonderful article, Rabbi.

    Forgive some levity, but the first time I heard the story of how the Ten Commandments were offered to the nations and then to us, it was from a tour-guide in Israel. The first part of the story was the same, but when it came to us, there was a minor difference.

    G-d said, “Here are the Ten Commandments! Take them!” We responded, “How much are they?” G-d responded, “It’s free!” To which we answered, “We’ll take two!” Which is why the Ten Commandments come on two tablets.

    • As I heard the joke, the nations rejected the offer of the commandments. When G-d came to the Jews, who were told that they were free, we said, “Free? OK, we’ll take ten.”
      -RSP

  2. mathew hoffman

    This piece should be displayed in every shul and school. Thank you Rabbi and good Yom Tov. Rabbi Mat

  3. Fabulous words. Write on Rabbi!

  4. Once upon a time, a simple Jew asked a Rabbi:
    “If a Rabbi declares a pig to be kosher, does that make pork kosher?

    The Rabbi answered the simple Jew:
    ““If a Rabbi declares a pig to be kosher, then that does not make pork kosher, but it makes the Rabbi un-kosher.”

    Similarly, if a Rabbi declares intermarriage between a Jew and a non-Jew to be kosher, then that does not make intermarriage kosher, but it does make the Rabbi un-kosher.”