Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret
To dedicate this lesson

Simchat Torah - V’zot Habracha


Rabbi Berel Wein

The completion of any significant portion of Torah learning is always an occasion for Jewish celebration. Any siyum (a completion of a tractate of Talmud or Mishna) is usually accompanied by a feast to help commemorate the happy event. There is a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at having seen a difficult intellectual and time consuming task to its successful conclusion. So it is naturally understandable that the occasion of our completing the annual cycle of Torah readings with the reading of V’zot Habracha on the final day of the Succot holiday makes it the most joyful day of the entire magnificent holiday season of the month of Tishrei. Simchat Torah affirms our faith in Jewish continuity and our unshakable belief in the divinity of Torah that Moshe brought to Israel from Mount Sinai. It is the holiday basically created by the Jewish people itself, replete with customs and nuances developed over the ages that have hardened into accepted practice and ritual. Here in Israel when Simchat Torah and Smimni Atzeret occur simultaneously on the same day, Simchat Torah, the folk holiday, has almost pushed Shmini Atzeret, the biblical and halachic holiday aside in thought and practice. This is a practical example how sometimes Jewish custom based upon intense love of and attachment to Torah frequently overwhelms Torah ritual itself. And what makes Simchat Torah so special is the fact that we begin to read from the beginning of the Torah again immediately so that there is no gap in our study and devotion to it. This is usually the case with all ceremonies of siyum in Jewish life where the completion of one tractate immediately leads to the beginning of study of another one.

In reality the reading of the Torah ends on an apparently sad note for the final part of the reading describes to us poignantly the death of our great teacher Moshe. He will never enter the Land of Israel but only be able to glimpse it from afar. His generation whom he shepherded for forty years has passed away, his sons will not inherit his position or power, and in his great gift of prophecy he is aware of the terrible problems that his beloved people of Israel must yet face and overcome through their long journey of history and destiny. Yet the joy of the presence of Torah within our nation overcomes these feelings of melancholy. As long as the words and ideals of Moshe still live amongst the Jewish people then there is great reason to rejoice for it means that we have not lost our way and that the eternity of Moshe and Israel is guaranteed. The nations of the world resent the fact that somehow we still have a chance to rejoice or attempt to live normal productive lives under terrible duress and distress. Witness Time magazine’s outrageous cover story that Israel is not interested in peace since we are attempting to live life normally and enjoyably. This absurd and malicious idea was echoed in Roger Cohen’s op-ed piece (Cohen is the regular contributing op-ed resident assimilated court Jew in the palace of the New York Times) cluck clucking that raising our children and preserving our sanity and putting bread on the table of our family somehow takes immediate precedence over satisfying Saaeb Erekat and Mohammed Abbas and their irrational demands. Simchat Torah comes to teach us that we should rejoice when we are able to do so and celebrate our existence and accomplishments even if things are not 100 percent as we would wish them to be. Completing the Torah reading is a matter of perseverance and so is all of Jewish life.

The Torah’s description of the death of Moshe is meant to impress us with the fact that Judaism is not the cult of the personality. Even when the greatest of Jews ever, Moshe, as the Torah itself describes him thusly in the final words of its text, dies and leaves us bereft and alone, we are not to overly mourn and certainly not to despair. We may yet continue to rejoice because the eternal Torah still is present within us with great vigor and vitality. As far as we are concerned the game is never over. We suffer and fall but we are never defeated. That is the power that the Torah grants us and therefore it is the source of our great joy in celebrating the completion and simultaneous beginning of the reading of the Torah this year. So be it for all of the years yet to come.
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