Thursday, October 12, 2017

Simhat Torah's Joy

Many people think that Yom Kippur with its fasting and solemn prayers is emblematic of our Jewish tradition. It is actually exceptional among our holidays. People as well think that the mourner’s kaddish is Judaism’s most important prayer. It is again unique.

Far more typical is the joy of Simhat Torah. Far more commonplace are the blessings associated with food. So important is eating that a mourner is commanded to eat when returning from burying a loved one. So significant is joy that it is a mitzvah to dance with the bride and groom at their wedding.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, writes (and this is among my favorite poems):
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read or write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
The Jewish tradition attempts to be exacting about joy. It provides us with precise days for our rejoicing.

We are nearing the end of our whirlwind of holidays. Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu, a time of our rejoicing. Nothing is greater than the rejoicing of these precise days. Sukkot comes to a rising conclusion with the holiday of Simhat Torah, the day we begin the Torah reading cycle again. There is no greater blessing than to be able to begin the Torah again. It is therefore a day of great singing and dancing.

There are so many days in our calendar when we are commanded to rejoice. Our happiness is mandated. In the tradition’s eyes, our joy is made precise. Even when mourning brushes up against a festival, the seven days of shiva are abbreviated. Communal joy supersedes personal tragedy. This is the tradition’s view. It is not to say of course that this is how people might feel. Yet Judaism insists, again and again, joy is required, celebration mandated, dancing commanded.

Nowhere is this more evident than at a wedding. Again, it is a mitzvah to dance at a wedding celebration. The sheva brachot, the hallmark of the tradition’s wedding ceremony, echo Amichai’s words: “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who created joy and gladness, bride and groom, pleasure, song, delight, laughter, love and harmony, peace and companionship…”

And then we wrap our arms around each other, circling in a hora until we finally leave the party saying, “It was a great evening. I have no words.”

Is it such a blur?

Or can our joy indeed be made precise?

Let’s see on this Simhat Torah!

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