“Rejoicing in the law”, Simchat Torah is a day of celebrating the Torah. It is also the conclusion of the 21 days including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It is a wedding, a time of unification when everything becomes one and we are filled with new ideas and inspiration for the coming year. We rejoice in the law because it is the great equalizer, and tells us that there is no facet of life that cannot be sanctified. Finally, when the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and danced with in a custom called Hakafot, we hug the Torah tight. Through the intimate journey of the holiday season we are introduced to our final lesson of the year: embrace transition
The first step in embracing transition is to understand that the journey is the destination.
There are times when Judaism places anticipation on a higher level than the arrival and realization of a chag or yom tov. For example, regarding Sukkot the Talmud says about the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah (Rejoicing of the Water-Drawing House) ceremony, “He who has not seen the Water-Drawing Celebration has never seen joy in his life”. Even though it was only drawing water to be put on the altar, the joy of preparing for the moment was greater than the joy of fulfilling it. In other words, if Simchat Torah is the destination, then the 21 days is from where we take the most joy.
Every person, every incident is our teacher. Given that Simchat Torah is a day of marriage, it’s important to revisit what we learned from the relationships that brought us to this divine unification.
“I remember the loving-kindness of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” – Jeremiah (2:2)
Rosh Hashanah taught us to remember our beginning and look back on our journey with compassion, judging moments favorably and within the context of our life’s story. It asks us: do you remember the beginning? You were young, yet you showed up authentically in love. This made you bold and unafraid, whether you knew it or not, to follow your heart into the unknown.
There are three aspects to repentance: seeing with the eyes, hearing with the ears and understanding in the heart - (Isaiah 6:10)
Yom Kippur taught us to believe we can change and that atonement requires sacrifice – many times that sacrifice is of the self, our pride and our ego. It asks us: now that you’ve had a chance to reflect, what did you learn? Do you believe you can change? What will it take?
Faith is not certainty: faith is the courage to live with uncertainty… Faith is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination. – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Sukkot taught us to stop saying sorry and start saying thank you. It taught us to continually go outside our comfort zone, and the gift of holding space and receiving others. It taught us that faith is found in uncertainty and that we need only look up at the sky to remind us of our place in the universe. Sukkot asks us: you’ve faced yourself, opened your heart to others and moved into acceptance, now what? Will you share the gratitude with others? Life is fleeting. Will you remember your purpose and continue to build and rebuild as often as it takes?
The next step in embracing transition is to look for the humanity.
The Torah has been described as a love letter to the Jewish people. Appropriate if we’re viewing this as a marriage. If you’ve ever received a letter or note from a loved one or partner, it’s likely you’ve read it more than once. You may bring it out in both good and hard times. You may look for the deeper meaning, studying the penmanship and word choice, all to be closer to that person. That describes the relationship between Jews and Torah. We devote our lives to reading this letter over and over again in order to become closer and understand the one who wrote it. Law to us is also a source of tremendous compassion. It provides structure and continuity for disparate parts. It’s often said “more than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews”. The aphorism extends to Torah, especially in that it kept Jewish communities intact through multiple expulsions and persecutions around the world over thousands of years. We celebrate the law because under wise enforcement, law ensures equality and stability, entitles individuals to basic rights, a fair trial, and provides humanity with its most powerful form of peaceable conflict resolution.
The last step in embracing transition is keeping the faith, remaining true and constant in your vision against all odds. We learn how to do it from Moses.
The Torah says this of Moses’ death:
“Moses was 120 years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his natural energy unabated.” – Deut. 34:7
Rabbi Sacks puts forth the idea, “Why was his energy unabated? Because his eyes were undimmed... He was as passionate at the end as he was at the beginning.” (Lessons in Leadership, Vezot Haberakha) An effective leader needs to adapt to new situations without stagnating and falling into despair. Moses held onto his encounter with God at the burning bush, and the experience taught a lesson that served him for the rest of his life: sustainability; or how to burn bright without burning out. How to be on fire with passion without being consumed by it.
The Kabbalah and Tanya tell us that we have two souls, an animal and a divine soul. Our thoughts and actions dictate which one gets fed moment to moment. To sustain a “Moses level” of passion for 120 years requires an infinite and spiritual fuel source that feeds the divine soul. In the case of Jews, that source is the Torah.
We’re sustained by a love letter addressed to us when we were young and idealistic. We tuck it away safely in a box, bringing it out on special occasions, as often as once a week. It reminds us of the beginning, a special time we must never forget. Every marriage requires a daily renewal of a commitment to keep the passion alive. This is how Moses maintained his vision through everything, never compromising his ideals. This is how his eyes remained undimmed and energy unabated until his last breath.
On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the love letter that sees us through good and bad, that helps us embrace whatever transition we’re facing. It sustains us. We should all be on fire with passion to the end of our days, without being consumed by it.
Michael Miller grew up in Cleveland, Ohio (USA). He received his BA in Acting and Drama Therapy from Marymount Manhattan College.
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