We have come to the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon. We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and now finally, Simhat Torah. We travel from personal introspection and repentance to fasting and the recounting of our many failings to the wandering and fragility of temporary booths (nothing like a week of wind and rain to remind us of that!) to now the joy of Simhat Torah.
We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning. On the day of Simhat Torah we begin the cycle all over again. We believe that everything we ever wanted to know is in this scroll. It is only perhaps a matter of reading it at a different angle if the wisdom is not immediately apparent.
We confirm our faith on this day: all wisdom and teachings are contained in this book. Thus we are privileged and blessed to begin this journey of exploration once again. This day is therefore cause for great celebration. Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It is about dancing and singing. And these, more than the fasting and recounting of sins on Yom Kippur, are the more authentic Jewish postures. We are supposed to celebrate. We are commanded to rejoice.
In fact the Talmud Yerushalmi states that we will be held to account for all the joys we neglected to celebrate. When we approach the heavenly court we will be asked in effect, “Did we rejoice enough?” That in a nutshell is the Jewish message. Do you say “L’Chaim!” every time you were offered the opportunity?
The Babylonian Talmud offers a story to emphasize this message. Rabbi Beroka used to visit the marketplace where the Prophet Elijah often appeared to him. Once Beroka asked Elijah: “Is there anyone here who has a share in the world to come?” He replied, “No!” While they were talking two men passed by, and Elijah remarked, “These two men have a share in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka ran after the men and asked, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters. When we see people depressed, we cheer them up.”
The easygoing jester has more a share in paradise than the hard-working butcher. The jester adds joy to the world. Even though his humor can at times be silly, and seemingly inconsequential, his jests add smiles and laughter to the world.
The Hasidic masters see important truths in these teachings. They remind us again and again that joy is essential to the spiritual quest. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “The Baal Shem [the founder of Hasidism] proclaimed joy to be the very heart of religious living, the essence of faith, greater than all other religious virtues.”
This is what Simhat Torah reaffirms.
Revel in life.
Laugh. And smile.
Most especially celebrate the gift of Torah.
And never pass up an opportunity to join in the dancing.