In the Land of Israel, the Festival of Shmini Atzeres is celebrated for one day, and in the Diaspora, it is celebrated for two days. In the Diaspora, the concluding portion of the Torah is read on the second day.
Since we finish reading the Torah on Shmini Atzeres, this Festival has become host to another celebration, known as "Simchas Torah" - the Joy of the Torah. It is customary to dance with the Torah during this celebration; in fact, Simchas Torah has become the most joyous celebration of our people.
On Simchas Torah we become more conscious of the essential identity of our people. The celebration of Simchas Torah reminds us that we are the People of the Torah - a people that were given the responsibility to become a living model of the Torah which would inspire all the peoples of the earth. All human beings are to benefit from the Torah, and this universal goal is expressed in the following verse which is chanted towards the beginning of the Simchas Torah celebration:
"Ki miTzion taytsei Torah, u'dvar
Hashem m'Yerushalyim" - For from
Zion will come forth Torah, and the Word
of the Compassionate One from Jerusalem"
The Torah is therefore our raison d'etre. Over a thousand years ago, Saadia Gaon, a leading Torah sage in Babylonia, reminded us of our raison d'etre when he stated: Our nation is a nation only through its Torah (Emunos V'De'os 3).
Our loving bond with the Torah is expressed in the songs that we joyously sing on Simchas Torah; moreover, these songs remind us that the Torah enables us to rise above our suffering, as King David proclaimed: "Had your Torah not been my joyful delight, I would have perished in my affliction" (Psalm 119:92). In this spirit, many people sing the following song on Simchas Torah:
"When the People of Israel sit and occupy themselves with the joy of the Torah, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, says to His inner chamber: 'See my beloved children, who forget about their sorrows and who occupy themselves with My delight!' "
The words of the above song are attributed to the Vilna Gaon, a leading sage of the 18th century.
During the years of our painful exile, there were nations which persecuted us and mocked us because we refused to abandon the Torah and adopt their religion. On Simchas Torah we forget about the persecution that we have endured, and we rejoice that we are the People of the Torah. We are happy that we were given the Written Torah, as well as the Oral Torah which enables us to reveal the deeper levels of meaning within the Written Torah. This happiness is expressed in a "piyut" - poetic prayer or song - attributed to the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Rabbi Yisrael ben Shabsei, who was one of the early Chassidic masters in Poland. Many communities sing the words of his Simchas Torah piyut to a lively Sephardic melody, and the following are excerpts from this piyut:
“There is no greatness like the Torah; no one expounds it like Israel.”
“There is no honor like the Torah; it has no students like Israel.”
“There is no treasure like the Torah; it has none involved with it like Israel.” (Chorus) “From God's mouth, from God's mouth, may Israel be blessed."
Through the joy of the Torah, we experience the "Shechinah" - the Divine Presence, and there are a number of references to the Shechinah in the piyutim of Simchas Torah. For example, we sing:
"The holy Shechinah is among us, the merit of Abraham is with us; May we all rejoice there upon arriving in Zion with glad song. O Loving One, remember for our sake the merit of the beloved Abraham."
Abraham was a spiritual pioneer, and we, his children, are to continue his pioneering role by serving as the spiritual "firstborn child" among the nations. A reference to this pioneering role appears in the following words from a Simchas Torah song:
"Let us exult and rejoice with this Torah, for to us it is strength and light. Has He not chosen us in His love? 'My child! My firstborn!' has He called us."
And the following words are from the concluding song of the Simchas Torah celebration:
"I shall rejoice and be glad on Simchas Torah; may the Sprouting One (the Messiah) come on Simchas Torah. The Torah is a tree of life, for all of them life, for with You is the Source of life."
Have a Chag Samayach –a Joyous Festival!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Stories and Comments:
1. Tsfas (Safed) is a holy city in the northern region of the Land of Israel. The Kabbalists of 15th century Tsfas were known for their celebration of Simchas Torah. Rabbi Chaim Vital tells how his master, the sainted Arizal, celebrated Simchas Torah:
"My master and teacher, of blessed memory, took great care to accompany the Torah scroll on its hakafah (circuit), dancing either in front of it or behind it. He would dance and sing joyously in front of the Torah and took care to make seven hakafos in this manner. Even after he had finished the hakafos in his own synagogue, he would join the celebration in any synagogue which he passed on the way home if they were still in the midst of the festivities. He would join in the singing and dancing with full vigor, as if he had not celebrated at all." (Cited in the ArtScroll Book "Simchas Torah")
2. The Art Scroll book "Simchas Torah" has the following description of the way the Vilna Gaon celebrated Simchas Torah:
"The Vilna Gaon would experience joy on Simchas Torah that surpassed even the intense happiness which he displayed throughout Succos. He would sing many liturgical poems and dance with abandon and great strength, clapping vigorously all the while. His countenance took on the radiance of a glowing flame as the wisdom within his heart and mind cast its brilliant light upon his face. He would dance and sing praises to God with all his might in honor of the Torah. Only when the scrolls were returned to the Ark did he return to the tranquilly joyous demeanor that he maintained on all holidays." (Maaseh Rav 333)
3. Most of the piyutim and songs that we cited are found in the ArtScroll book, "Simchas Torah - Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers": www.artscroll.com .
4. In the Land of Israel, the celebration of Simchas Torah will begin this Friday night, and in the Diaspora, it will begin on Saturday night. If you would like to experience both the joy and the holiness of a traditional Simchas Torah celebration, then you may wish to visit a yeshiva (Torah academy), synagogue, or other Jewish community in your area where people strive to study and “live” the Torah.