THE JEWISH LITERACY DAY.
Simchat Torah is probably the only religious festival anywhere that celebrates a book.
Most religions – Judaism too – make grand occasions out of historical anniversaries. Many celebrate great thinkers, mentors, martyrs and spiritual leaders. Many have times of supreme joy interspersed with times of supreme tragedy.
But no other religion makes such a great event out of opening a book, reading it and reaching its close.
The book is of course the Torah. We give the day a name – Simchat Torah: our rejoicing over the Torah and the Torah’s rejoicing over us.
Imagine, a people with all its gamut of tzaddikim and sinners, deniers and doubters, that has added to its scriptures by creating its own Literacy Day and making it a great popular festival.
Whatever criticisms can be voiced about the Jewish people, no-one can ever say that we had no interest in education, no love of books, no way with words.
No other religion has given a bookcase such pride of place in its place of worship.
SIMCHA IS A MITZVAH.
There is a well known idea of “simcha shel mitzvah”, “the joy of the mitzvah“.
It tells us that when we do a mitzvah we should enjoy what we’re doing. To perform a mitzvah with a sour face, even to carry out the mitzvah perfunctorily, might have its value, but it lacks something extremely important.
There is a companion idea which says that simcha itself is a mitzvah, not just enjoying the fulfilment of a Divine command, but enjoying life as a whole and all its blessings.
Pinhas Peli commends this idea and finds it grounded in teachings of the classical Jewish thinkers.
Yehudah HaLevi says there are three ways to God, joy, love and fear (Kuzari 2:50).
The Rambam says joy is “a supreme act of Divine worship”.
Not that joy is defined as going berserk, getting on an artificial high, over-indulging in drink or going wild. Joy is the quiet feeling that life is wonderful even if we have problems.
I had a colleague whose wife told me, “My husband is never happy unless he’s miserable”. Whether she was right, and what the words meant, the fact is that even if a person is miserable they can still feel joy.
Joy comes from a Shehecheyanu-type feeling of gratitude that God has “given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time“.
THE DAY AFTER.
There are three views about the day after Simchat Torah:
* “I’m glad it’s all over. Synagogue Season knocks you out!”
* “I enjoyed it. Being in touch with your religion for a month is great!”
* “I don’t take it seriously, just an occasional passing nod!”
You encounter any or all of these views if you talk to people the day after the festival.
The fact is that though most Jews keep Rosh HaShanah (at least the first day) and Yom Kippur, only a minority bother with Sukkot and less than half keep Simchat Torah.
There may be two extra factors about Simchat Torah – some people come specially because it tends to be light-hearted, whilst others deliberately stay away because of the noise and length of the service.
The really important thing is to say to yourself,
“Jewishness is part of my being, even if I don’t keep everything scrupulously. I really should spend a bit more time this year in becoming more knowledgeable as a Jew and even in trying out some of the practices that have never been part of my Jewish consciousness.”.
JACK OF ALL TRADES.
In the haftarah for Sh’mini Atzeret, Solomon blesses Israel and says, “Let your heart be whole with the Lord your God” (I Kings 8:61).
To understand what it means to let the heart be whole, an analogy is called for.
Think of physics. The physicist used to know more or less everything about his subject, but now his discipline has many branches.
Once a builder had enough skill to cope with the whole job; today he needs an array of tradesmen.
In religion too, the old-time Jew was a Jack of all trades. He went to synagogue to pray, to learn, to give tz’dakah. The smallest community had a Chevra Shass or Chevra T’hillim; the poorest house had an array of charity pushkes.
A Jew wore tzitzit, put on tefillin, bensched after meals. On Shabbat he was a king and his wife was a queen; the children were princes and princesses. In business all was honest and above board. At night one could face God and one’s conscience.
These were all-round Jews; their hearts were whole with the Lord their God.
Today many lead a fragmented Jewish life. We support the synagogue but don’t pray, establish schools but don’t study, give to the Holy Land but don’t think of living there.
We daven without understanding, refrain from food but speak lashon ha-ra on Yom Kippur, eat matzah on Pesach but ignore those who eat the bread of affliction all the year.
We are Bar-Mitzvah, cemetery, food or humour Jews.
We think because in other areas the Jack of all trades is outmoded, it is like that in Jewish life too. As a result, Judaism suffers; we all suffer, because we miss the full richness of the Jewish experience.
In Judaism you can have your own emphases, but you have to be a Jack (or Ya’akov) of all trades.