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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret

Why Be Happy?

On Simchat Torah we are particularly happy. What makes us so happy?
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Rejoicing of the Torah
The last day of the festival of Succot is frequently called Simchat Torah, the day of the rejoicing of the Torah. On this day we conclude the annual reading of the Torah in the synagogue. Each week on Shabbat we read one portion of the Torah, such that each year we read the entire Torah once through.

On Simchat Torah, the last day of Succot, we finish the last portion of the Torah, called Vezot HaBrachah, the section that discusses Moshe’s blessings to the Jewish people. Immediately we start the Torah again and read the first portion of the Torah, BeReishit, that deals with the creation of the world.

The message is clear, the Torah never ends, and neither does our study. We get to the end and then go right back to the beginning again. We do not miss a beat, do not sit back and rest for a moment. When we conclude, we begin again.

In Israel the festival of Succot lasts for seven days and the eighth day is Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of gathering. This day is combined with the celebration of Simchat Torah. Outside of Israel the festival of Succot lasts for seven days, the eighth day is Shmini Atzeret and the ninth day is Simchat Torah. The reason for this is historical and depends on the fact that those living outside of Israel did not immediately know when the new month was announced. They were uncertain as to the exact date and to ensure that they celebrated the festivals on time an extra day was added. Even though today this reason is obsolete, we still observe the custom of keeping two days of festival in the Diaspora and only one in Israel.

However, in both places the last day that we celebrate is called Simchat Torah. The day is marked by dancing with the Torah in the synagogue. The Torah scrolls are removed from the Aron, the ark and carried round the synagogue. We circle the synagogue at least seven times and then continue dancing and celebrating. Young and old people take part in the dancing. Candies and sweets are given out to the children and also to the young at heart. To mark the day various different songs have been composed that speak of the glory of the Torah and our relationship to her and to God, the Giver of the Torah.

Everyone gets called up to the Torah, even the little children. In order to accommodate all of the congregants the Torah portion is read again and again until all have had an aliyah, that is that they have been called to the Torah. The small children all gather under a talit and answer amen to the blessing over the Torah made by one of the congregation.

Dancing with the Law Book
It is an unusual event, to watch people dancing and rejoicing with their law book. Usually a book of laws is not the most loved of objects, it is constricting and demanding. But the Jewish people dance with the Torah as we recognise that the Torah is our source of life and strength. It guides us and helps us much more than it commands and cramps us.

There is a mitzvah in the Torah which conveys a similar message. A commandment that requires us to come together to listen to the Torah and to forge together around the Torah and listening to the law. That mitzvah is the commandment of the hakhel, the gathering together.

"Moshe commanded saying ‘At the end of the seven years at the time of the Sh’mitah year during the festival of Succot. All of Israel will come to see the face of God in the place that He will choose, read this Torah before all the people in their ears. Gather the nation, men, women and children and the stranger in your midst, in order that they shall hear and learn and fear God, and will keep all of the words of this Torah" (Devarim 31:10-12).

Moshe taught the Jewish people, just as they were about to enter into the Land, that they should all gather together once every seven years in the Temple. There the Torah would be read to ensure that the Torah was acknowledged and observed.

The Mishnah explains that this ceremony should take place "On the day after the first day of the festival of Succot, on the year after the seventh year (that is the Sh’mitah year)" (Sotah 7:8). The king was to read the Torah to the whole nation1.

It is interesting to note that the Jerusalem Talmud in bringing the same Mishnah has a different version. Instead of stating that the ceremony of the hakhel should be on the second day of the festival of Succot, it writes that the hakhel was on "the day after the end of Succot" (Yerushalmi, Sotah 7:7). There is significance in this difference that we will return to later.

Both versions place the hakhel in close proximity to the festival of Succot. Was it that the hakhel caused joy and therefore was appropriate to the festivities of Succot? Alternatively we could explain that the festivities of Succot naturally lead to the ceremony of the hakhel.

The Joys of Succot
On Succot we have a special requirement to be happy. "You shall rejoice in your festival" (Devarim 16:14) and again "you shall be very happy" (ibid. 15). Why is Succot singled out for this specific mitzvah? What elements of Succah make us especially happy?

There are commentaries that explain that as all the festivals are agriculturally based and Succot represents the end of the harvest, naturally we are happy during Succot (See Chizkuni ad loc.). However, there are other aspects of the festival that are a cause of joy for the Jewish people.

The verse states "For seven days all of the citizens of Israel shall sit in succot" (Vayikra 23:42). The Gemara explains this verse that "it teaches that all of Israel are worthy of sitting in one succah" (Succah 27b). The succah and the festival of Succot represent the unity of the Jewish people. Each individual can dwell in the succah, together with the rest of the nation.

The succah itself binds us together in a common fate. During the rest of the year we all live in our own homes and houses. The walls between us divide us and set us apart from each other. During the seven days of Succot we leave our homes and go out into our succah. In the succah we become much more like each other, we are all at the mercy of God. When it rains during Succot, both the rich and the poor get wet.

The succah brings us together. Succot is a time for unity, for togetherness. This is apparent when we look at the four species that we are required to take and wave during Succot.

Bringing the Four Species Together
"Take for yourselves on the first day [of Succot] the fruit of the Hadar tree (a citrus, or etrog), the branch of the date palm (the lulav), a woven branch (the three leafed myrtle, the hadas), and the willow of the river (the aravah). You shall rejoice before God for seven days" (Vayikra 23:40). We are commanded to take these four species together: the citrus, the palm branch, the myrtle and the willow, and be happy before God for the seven days of the festival of Succot.

It appears that this mitzvah of the four species is also designed to bring us happiness. What is it about the four species that causes us to rejoice?

Again the theme is unity, bringing distinct and different elements together. There is a famous Midrash that likens the four species to different types of Jews.

"The etrog has both a smell and a taste, so in Israel there are those who have Torah and good deeds. The palm branches have a taste but no smell, so in Israel there are those who have Torah but no good deeds. The myrtle branch has a smell but no taste, so in Israel there are those who have good deeds but no Torah. The willow has no taste and no smell, so there are those in Israel who have neither Torah nor good deeds.

What does God command? To gather them all together and they will atone for one another" (Vayikra Raba 30:12).

The Midrash uses the image of the four species to explain that the community of Israel comprises different people. Each has their own skills and their benefits. So too does each have their drawbacks and limitations. However, God commands us to gather all of them together and thus create a complete and perfect bond. Taken together they atone for one another, they form an assembly that can be judged favorably. They need each other in order to achieve this.

Waving the Lulav
There is another way that the lulav, etrog, hadas and aravah symbolise the unity of the Jewish people. We wave the lulav and the other species at several points during our prayers on Succot. We shake them when we initially pick them up and make the blessing. We then shake them again during the Halel prayer.

"We shake them when we make the blessing. Also when we say ‘Praise to God’ once, and at each ‘Praise’ that we say. Also when we say ‘Praise to God’ at the end that we repeat. There are those that say that the leader should shake also when he says ‘Say Israel’ but not when he says ‘Say those that fear God’" (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 651:8 and the gloss of the Rema ad loc.).

The Mishnah Berurah explains that the reader should only shake the species when he says the words ‘Praise to God’, and ‘Say, children of Israel’, but not when he says ‘Say, the house of Aharon’ nor ‘Say, those that fear God’ (Mishnah Berurah ibid. note 41). The reason given for this is that the first two phrases are directed at the entire congregation, whereas the last two phrases only speak to certain sections of the community.

When the reader instructs the sons of Aharon, or those that fear God, to praise Him he is not including everyone in the congregation. For that reason he only shakes the lulav when everyone else shakes together with him.

The lulav can only be shaken when everyone does it together. Only when the collective are unified can God truly be praised. That is the message of the waving of the four species, and of the four species themselves. That is also the message of the hakhel.

Together in the Hakhel
There is a Gemara that discusses the hakhel and raises a number of important points connected with this ceremony.

"Once Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma went to visit Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in. He asked them ‘What new things were said today in the study hall?’ They replied ‘We are your students and drink from your waters.’ ‘Even though, there is no study hall with no new ideas. Who gave the discourse this week?’ ‘Elazar ben Azaria.’ ‘What did he teach about today?’ They said to him ‘Hakhel.’ ‘What did he teach?’ ‘"Gather together the men, women and children" (Devarim 31:12), if the men come to learn, the women to hear, why do the children come? In order to give reward to those that bring them.’ He said to them ‘You had such a gem [of an idea] and you did not want to reveal it to me?’

‘He continued [the verse states] ‘You have declared God today [to be your God]’ (Devarim 26:17), and [in the next verse it says] ‘God has declared you [to be His chosen nation]’ (ibid. 18). God said to Israel ‘You made Me one entity in the world, I will make you one entity in the world. You made Me one entity in the world as it says ‘Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, God is one’ (Devarim 6:4), and I will make you one entity in the world, as it says ‘Who is like you, Israel, one nation in the land’ (Divrei HaYamim I 17:21)’.

‘He continued and said ‘The words of the sages are like spurs, and like nails driven in are those who collect; they all come from one shepherd’ (Kohelet 12:11). Why are words of Torah compared to spurs? In the same way that spurs direct the animal to give life to the world, so do words of Torah direct those who learn from the ways of death to the ways of life.

‘Those who collect’; these are Torah scholars who gather together and learn Torah. Some say that [a particular item] is impure while others say that it is pure, some say that [a particular action] is forbidden, while others say that it is permitted, some say that [a food item] is not kosher, while others say that it is kosher. Lest a person should ask ‘How can I learn Torah in such a situation?’ The verse clearly states ‘they all come from one shepherd’. One God gave them, from the mouth of the Lord of all actions. Thus you should open your ears like a funnel and acquire an understanding heart to hear the words of those who say it is impure, the words of those who say it is pure, the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who say it is kosher’" (Chagigah 3a-3b).

Unity in the Hakhel and Beyond
Rabbi Yehoshua implored his visitors to relate what they had learnt in their studies. They told him that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria had taught the lesson that week and his subject had been the mitzvah of the hakhel. They then proceeded to teach him three separate discourses all on the subject of the hakhel or, to be more exact, on the underlying essence of the hakhel. The common thread running through these three ideas is the subject of unity on a variety of levels.

The first teaching related directly to the mitzvah of the hakhel. All are required to attend the ceremony in the Beit Hamikdash, but the reasons that each person came were different. Some came to teach and learn, to be active participants in the ritual. Others had a more passive role, they came to listen. Another group came to be inspired by the event even though the actual service was incomprehensible to them. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught that all of these people are required to come to the hakhel2.

Unity does not mean that everyone is the same, in fact this is an impossibility. We have to recognise that there are distinct types of individuals. Unity comes from their having a common bond, having a structure for them to fuse together. The hakhel provides such a forum. All attend, for whatever reason, and all gain from their own attendance and from that of their fellows.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah then expanded the theme of unity to discuss another type of unity: that between man and God. We declare the unity of God, "Listen Israel, God is our God, God is one". We speak of the unity of God even though sometimes it appears to us as though God does things of which we approve and others that we cannot understand. Even so we proudly say daily, "God is one".

When we speak of God’s unity, that reflects onto us, His people. As a reward, or a consequence, of our ‘making’ God one in this world, we too become a unified nation. Again the message is that when we bond together around a common goal we become unified, "one nation in the land".

Unity in the World of Torah
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah then further developed the theme of unity to discuss the apparent disunity of the Torah world and the Torah sages. Using the verse from Kohelet he explained that the Torah gives us life. This should be a cause for celebration. However, when we start to study Torah and investigate the different opinions of the scholars we find a disturbing reality. Each sage interprets the Torah in his own tradition and according to his understanding. This results in a plethora of opinions. Far from binding us together and giving us life, the Torah seems to divide us.

What can one do in such a divided world?3 The Gemara suggests the only way of finding the true path in such circumstances. One should open one’s ears and heart in order to listen to all of the opinions. Only when one is capable of listening to each and every opinion does one start to achieve unity.

Unity is forged from the wide assortment of different ideas. These seem to contradict each other, but when one can listen to the basis of each he realises that each of them contributes one portion to the truth. When one opens avenues of communication then he is on the way to finding true unity.

Unity, Before or After Succot
We have already seen that the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds disagreed on the exact timing of the hakhel. The Bavli said that it was after Succot whereas the Yerushalmi placed it at the beginning of Succot.

The argument stems from an understanding of how to achieve unity. The Jerusalem Talmud suggests that unity is an integral part of the Jewish people. When the people gather to celebrate Succot they are already capable of bonding together to serve God. Therefore it is appropriate that the hakhel should be at the beginning of Succot.

However, the Bavli holds that in order to achieve unity the Jewish people have to spend a week together. They have to study each other and worship together. Only then can they achieve true unity. Therefore the hakhel was held at the end of Succot.

Succot and Simchat Torah are times of unity, true unity. Therefore, they are also times of joy, true joy. The focal point of this joy is the Torah, and the unity that we seek and celebrate comes from the Torah. Let us truly unite and rejoice, together.

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