WHO IS REJOICING?
The name Simchat Torah is ambiguous. The conventional translation helps very little. To say “The Rejoicing of the Torah” tells us two things, but not what we really need to know. It tells us that this is a day of rejoicing; it tells us that the rejoicing involves the Torah. But what it fails to make clear is who is actually doing the rejoicing. Is the Torah rejoicing in us, or are we rejoicing in the Torah?
If you ask me which option I support, the answer is, “Both!” I thought of using marriage as a comparison. Who rejoices when a couple get married – the bride or the groom? Surely the answer is that they both rejoice; they rejoice in each other.
Yes, I know the song, based in fact on Talmudic sources, “Ketzad m’rakk’dim lif’nei ha-kallah” – “How should we dance before the bride?” But I don’t think this was ever meant to suggest that the bride rejoices more than the groom.
Another passage: Psalm 19:6, which speaks of the sun gleaming like a groom emerging from his chuppah. But this surely does not imply that the bride gleams less than the groom. There is no Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, as people used to say; there is no marriage without both a bride and a groom, and there is no Simchat Torah without both the Torah and the Jewish people rejoicing in each other.
Let’s make sure this Simchat Torah that we and the Torah feel happy with one another, and that the joy continues throughout the year ahead.
SOLOMON’S SIMCHAT TORAH.
A well-known Simchat Torah piyyut (“Avraham samach b’Simchat Torah”) asserts that our Biblical ancestors rejoiced on Simchat Torah. This present paragraph looks only at the involvement of Solomon.
The commentators quote I Kings 3, in which Solomon is asked in a dream what he most wants. His answer is “an understanding heart” (verse 9). God is pleased that Solomon has not asked for long life or anything material and promises him “a wise and understanding heart so that there has been no-one before you like you, nor after you shall anyone arise like you” (verses 11-12). Solomon wakes up, goes to the Temple, offers sacrifices and makes a feast for his servants (verse 15).
Following this precedent, the sages see the Jewish people as asking God for the wisdom that derives from the Torah and celebrating God’s blessings by means of a feast. The implication is that the day of Solomon’s dream was Simchat Torah, possibly a personal Simchat Torah and not necessarily on the present date.
The idea is valuable to every generation. If we ask God only for physical, material benefits, we have not asked for the things that really make a difference to history.
Our prayer should not be for prosperity, except insofar as this gives us the means to bring blessing to those who need it, but for wisdom and understanding. With wisdom and understanding, you have everything, and you deserve to celebrate.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.