The emergence of Simchat Torah signals something remarkable.
Simchat Torah begins Tuesday evening, Sept. 28.
Simchat Torah, celebrated the day after Shemini Atzeret in the diaspora (and combined into one day in Israel), is unique among festivals.
It is not mentioned in the Torah, nor in the Talmud. Unlike Purim and Chanukah, it was not formalized by any decision on the part of the religious authorities, nor does it commemorate any historical deliverance.
It grew from the grassroots, slowly developing over time. It was born in Babylon, probably at the end of the period of the Amora’im, the rabbis of the Talmud, in the fifth or sixth century. The Babylonian custom — now universal — was to divide the Torah into 54 portions to be read in the course of a year (in Israel there was a three or three-and-a-half-year cycle).
On the second day of Shemini Atzeret in Babylon (there was no second day in Israel), the custom was to read the last portion of the Torah, in which Moshe blessed the nation at the end of his life. It had long been the custom to make a celebration on completing a section of study, a Talmudic tractate, or an order of the Mishnah (Shabbat 118b).
Thus, the custom evolved to make a celebration at the completion of the Mosaic books, and it was considered a great honor to be called to the Torah for this last portion. The celebration became known as Simchat Torah.
The emergence of Simchat Torah signals something remarkable. You may have noticed that Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are both described as zeman simchateinu, the season of our joy. The nature of that joy was clear and signaled in different ways both by the sukkah and by the Four Species.
The sukkah reminded the people how blessed they were to be living in Israel when they recalled how their ancestors had to live for 40 years without a land or a permanent home. The lulav, etrog, hadassim and aravot were a vivid demonstration of the fruitfulness of the land under the divine blessing of rain.
Exile In Babylon
The joy of Sukkot was the joy of living in the Promised Land. But by the time Simchat Torah had spread throughout the Jewish world, Jews had lost virtually everything: their land, their home, their freedom and independence, the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial order — all that had once been their source of joy.
A single devastating sentence in one of the piyutim of Ne’ilah (at the close of Yom Kippur), summed up their situation: Ein shiur rak haTorah hazot, “Nothing remains but this Torah.” All that remained was a book.
How could we find joy if we had lost everything as a people? Sa’adia Gaon, writing in the 10th century, asked a simple question. In virtue of what were the Jewish people still a nation?
It had none of the normal preconditions of a nation. Jews were scattered throughout the world. They did not live in the same territory. They were not part of a single economic or political order. They did not share the same culture.
They did not speak the same language. Rashi spoke French, Rambam Arabic. Yet they were, and were seen to be, one nation, bound by a bond of collective destiny and responsibility.
Hence, Sa’adia concluded: Our people are a people only in virtue of our Torah (Beliefs and Opinions, 3). In the lovely rabbinic phrase about the Ark which contained the tablets, “It carried those who carried it” (Sotah 35a). More than the Jewish people preserved the Torah, the Torah preserved the Jewish people.
It was, as we say in our prayers, “our life and the length of our days.” It was the legacy of their past and the promise of their future. It was their marriage contract with God, the record of the covenant that bound them unbreakably together. They had lost their world, but they still had God’s word, and it was enough. More than enough.
Consumed with Joy
On Simchat Torah, without being commanded by any verse in the Torah or any decree of the rabbis, Jews throughout the world sang and danced and recited poems in honor of the Torah, exactly as if they were dancing in the courtyard of the Temple at the Simchat Beit HaSho’evah (a Chol HaMoed Sukkot celebration of water), or as if they were King David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem.
They were determined to show God, and the world, that they could still be ach same’ach, as the Torah said about Sukkot: wholly, totally, given over to joy. It would be hard to find a parallel in the entire history of the human spirit of a people capable of such joy at a time when they were being massacred in the name of the God of love and compassion.
A people that can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and still rejoice is a people that cannot be defeated by any force or fear.
Rambam writes (Laws of Shofar 8:15) that to experience joy in the fulfillment of a mitzvah out of the love of God is to touch the spiritual heights. Whoever stands on their dignity and regards such things as beneath them is, he says, a sinner and a fool — and whoever abandons their dignity for the sake of joy is thereby elevated “because there is no greatness or honor higher than celebrating before God.”
Simchat Torah was born when Jews had lost everything else, but they never lost their capacity to rejoice. Nechemiah was right when he said to the people weeping as they listened to the Torah, realizing how far they had drifted from it: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nechemiah 8:10). A people whose capacity for joy cannot be destroyed is, itself, indestructible.
Reflect: How will you continue to find joy this Simchat Torah when the usual celebrations will likely be curtailed due to the pandemic?
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, 1991-2013. His teachings have been made available to all. This essay was first published in October 2018.