by Jacob Solomon
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| “Happy are you, Israel! Who is like you? A people saved by G-d…” (33:29)
These were the final recorded words that Moses spoke to the Israelites before his death - the finale to the blessings that Moses gave to the different Israelite tribes. These words are always read on Simchat Torah – as part of the Reading of the Law for Bridegroom of the Law: the final portion in the Five Books of Moses.
Unlike all other Parashiot, Vezot Habracha always falls on the same date in the Calendar: on the 22nd of Tishri (in Israel), and on the 23rd of Tishri (in the Diaspora). It seems rather surprising at first sight that this date has been selected for the ending and beginning of the annual cycle of the Reading of the Torah. Surely Shavuot – which is referred to as Z’man Matan Torateinu – the time of the Giving of the Torah, would be a much better date to end and begin the Torah reading annual cycle?
The following story gives a key to understanding the deeper meaning of Simchat Torah, and to the issues raised by this question.
Some twenty years ago the author witnessed an elderly person getting an Aliya one Shabbat, in celebration of his Diamond Wedding – sixty years of marriage. He never forgot the deep joy and rapture that radiated from that gentleman. Sixty years on, he was thrilled that he had made the right decision in marrying the woman he chose! Were all those years filled with happiness? Most unlikely – like virtually all couples, they had had their differences. They had suffered the less pleasant aspects of life together – including financial uncertainties, ill-health, and death in the family. Yet nevertheless – with all those problems and discomforts, he was able to say - sixty years on - that his decision to marry the then young woman he had met was a wise one! And in the same position he would have married the same person again!
Contrast these feelings with many young people when they stand under the wedding canopy. Amidst all the pomp and finery of the wedding, the couple feel that the moment of truth has caught up with them. They become distinctly uneasy and nervous – although their faces are unlikely to show it. Are we doing the right thing? Are we really for each other? Could it all – G-d forbid – end in divorce? So outwardly there is plenty of joy and jubilation. But underneath it all, unlike the diamond wedding, there could well be much anxiety for the bridegroom and bride. In short, the wedding day is not the happiest day of their lives. It has a very serious side to it.
Applying these observations to the deeper meaning of Simchat Torah, we note that indeed, the portion begins with Moses’ reference to the Giving of the Torah:
He (Moses) said: “G-d came from Sinai – having shone towards them from Seir, having appeared from Mount Paran, and He came with the holy myriads – from His right hand He presented the fiery Law to them” (33:2).
Rashi on that verse quotes the Mechilta that says that He went to meet the Israelites standing at Mount Sinai in the way that a groom would go out to meet his bride. The Sifri (343) interprets the above verse to mean that G-d had already offered the Torah to the descendents of Esau, who lived in Seir, and to the Ishmaelites, living in Paran. They both rejected the opportunity to receive the Torah because it forbade their current lifestyles, which included murder and theft respectively.
The Israelites, however, said na-aseh ve-nishma (Exodus 24:7) – unconditional acceptance of the Torah – we will obey and we will listen. Such was their faith in the Almighty at that moment, that they knew that whatever He demanded would be for their ultimate good. However, faith in an abstract form has precisely the weakness of being abstract. Irrespective of any long-term benefit in being G-d’s Chosen Nation, they faced the reality of a certain and drastic change in their lifestyle, and curtailment of their freedom. This was set forth in the Ten Commandments, which – following Saadia Gaon, break down into the 613 precepts. Every Israelite would be held accountable to the Almighty for every preventable misdeed. Indeed, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) relates that the Israelites were given no choice – it brings the famous tradition that when the Israelites sat at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 19:17), the Almighty held the mountain over them like a cask. He told them that if they refused the Torah, Mount Sinai would be their grave, there and then. So in the moment of truth, the Israelites needed some encouragement. Like the wedding, the Receiving of the Torah had its less joyous, serious side to it.
Indeed, in the next forty or so years the Israelites did not always remain loyal to Torah precepts, and the relationship between the Almighty – (the husband) and the Israelites – (the wife) was often very strained. More than once, the Torah implies that only Moses’ prayers stood between the Israelites and total breakdown of their relationship with G-d. And yet at the end of those 40 years – at the time of Moses’ death, the marriage between the Israelites and G-d was a successful one – as Moses said just before his death, “Thus Israel shall remain secure… in the likeness of Jacob” (33:28). Here was the real, if less spectacular joy. Like the diamond wedding, the Israelites knew from the many years’ previous experience – not faith – that they had made the right choice in accepting the Torah, and indeed, that they owed their existence and prosperity to it.
The cycle of events between Shavuot and Simchat Torah likewise brings out the difference between faith and experience. The Maharal says that our calendar does not commemorate historical events per se, but rather reflects the different ways the Almighty relates to His people. Thus Shavuot involves an act of accepting the Torah – reflecting the well-established custom of staying up on Shavuot night to learn and become better acquainted with the Torah. But there are no Hakafot, no obvious ceremonies of rejoicing in focussing on Receiving the Torah. Like the bikkurim (first fruits) that precede the harvest, Shavuot precedes a growing experience in how G-d relates to his people.
The Three Weeks (between the Fast of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av) commence forty days after Shavuot. This is not just the period in which the Temples were destroyed, but the time – every year - when G-d is at his furthest from His people. To this end, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 551:1) rules that any Jew who has a lawsuit with a non-Jew during the ‘nine days’ of Av should postpone it because his ‘mazal’ (luck) is bad.
The succeeding period of Elul – ani le-dodi ve dodi li – I am to my bride and my bride is to me (c.f. Song of Songs 2:16) is a time of healing: Return O Israel to the L-rd your G-d, for your sinful ways have failed (Hosea 14:2). It is the time when the Jews realize their past failures and they realize – from sad experience – that straying from the very Torah precepts which they had initially accepted at Mount Sinai, is not in their interests. Repentance becomes more urgent as Selichot begin and it reaches its zenith as we usher in Rosh Hashanah.
But on Rosh Hashanah, G-d’s relationship with us is Middat Hadin – justice. Today the Universe was created; today it stands in judgement (c.f. Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The Almighty reviews our deeds over the entire year and inscribes: Who shall live and who shall die; who shall live out his life span and who shall not… Contrary to popular opinion, the mood on Yom Kippur is much gentler than on Rosh Hashanah – it is the time that He is closest to us and He accepts our confession and penitence on the basis of our sincere resolutions to improve ourselves. He forgives our past failings, as long as we make the appropriate efforts to put things right.
On Sukkot our relationship with the Almighty is complete. We experience the culmination of the harvest – and thank Him by taking items from the harvest in His service: namely the sechach (natural roofing material for the sukkah), the Four Species, and in Temple times, water, for the ceremonial pouring of water in the Temple (Talmud: Sukka 5:4). Our theme is not ‘serve G-d with fear’ (Psalms 2:11), but the higher level of ‘serve G-d with joy’ (Psalms 100:2). The joy comes out of our security with Him – that He has forgiven our straying from Him, that He has granted us a harvest. However the first days of Sukkot have a universalistic appeal – they are not just for the Jewish people, but for all humanity (see Zachariah 14) – reflected in the sacrifices of the festive bulls, which were for the Other Nations. By contrast, Simchat Torah is also called Shemini Atzeret (in Israel only) – the time that G-d tells the Jews to ‘remain with him one day’ for a final celebration exclusive to G-d and His People.
By then the cycle is complete. The Jews – like the diamond wedding couple – have gone through the varied and extended experience of Receiving the Torah. They know that they were right in accepting it. And having lived and grown through it, they come to love it all the more. At that time they dance with the Sefer Torah and it is on that crescendo where we can truly and sincerely say ‘Happy are you, Israel! Who is like you?’ that we complete and re-commence the annual cycle of the Reading of the Torah.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network For information on subscriptions, archives, and http://www.shemayisrael.co.il Jerusalem, Israel 732-370-3344
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
For information on subscriptions, archives, and