As we near the conclusion of our Fall holidays I have been reflecting on the meaning of these days. Yom Kippur still lingers in my thoughts. But after enjoying meals in my sukkah and looking forward to dancing with the Torah scrolls, Yom Kippur appears to stand in stark contrast to these other days and for that matter, all Jewish holidays.
Do you remember the 7 Up commercials? “It’s 7 Up. It’s the Uncola.”
I have been thinking about these commercials as I reflect on the meaning of Yom Kippur. In truth, it is the un-Jewish Jewish holiday. Think about it. There is no food. There is no kiddush blessing over the wine. You can’t drink. You can’t eat. You beat yourself on the chest. Granted, honest self-reflection is a good thing. It does indeed make us better, but only if we do the hard work of correcting our failings. Nonetheless the day seems so un-Jewish.
Perhaps some might think it blasphemous for a rabbi to say such things about the Sabbath of Sabbaths and the holiest day of our Jewish year, but such are my feelings as we approach our rejoicing with the Torah. Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It is pure unadulterated joy. It is about a book. It is about rejoicing. Dancing and singing, reading and studying these are the highest Jewish virtues, not fasting and lamenting. In our tradition joy is obligated. Our tradition chooses kiddush over kaddish.
All feel the obligation to mourn and recite kaddish. Few understand and appreciate that it is an equal obligation to dance and rejoice. The great code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh, asks the following question. Given that a person is obligated to both comfort mourners and dance with the bride and groom, what happens if he is standing on a street corner and a funeral procession and wedding procession pass by at the same time? Which procession does he follow?
The answer: the wedding procession. In our tradition joy supersedes mourning. This philosophical statement is made even more powerful when you take into account the fact that this idea was discussed and codified during dark times when Jews were still grappling with the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and too often experiencing persecution. The rabbis decided: we celebrate at every opportunity, even and perhaps especially because we also know that mourning comes too easily and too frequently.
This is why the observance of shiva ends when it draws near a holiday. Even if one has not reached the allotted seven days, shiva ends, even if one has only observed one day, shiva ends. The joy of a holiday supersedes mourning. Communal joy takes precedence over personal grief. Rejoicing overrides mourning.
That in a nutshell is Judaism. And that is why Simhat Torah is, in my estimation, the holiday of holidays. What a remarkable day this holiday is. What a wonderful privilege to sing and dance with a book in hand.
Simhat Torah. It’s the real thing! (Sorry I couldn’t resist.) Chag Samayach!