A Sabbath Message: Simchat Torah – Reconnecting with Joy

“V’samachta b’chagecha...And you shall rejoice in your Festival…and you will be only happy.” – Book of Deuteronomy (16:14-15)

“Joy is any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to…I feel a deep sense of joy every moment of my life, in which I am utterly powerless and infinitely powerful. Every moment, I am inescapably hammered into place by everything that has ever happened since the creation of the universe, and every moment, I am free to act in a way that will alter the course of that great flow of being forever.” – Rabbi Alan Lew (1943-2009)

Sabbath this week ushers in the closing days of our holiday cycle, the spiritual journey on which we have been travelling for many weeks since the summer. Beginning all the way back to Tisha B’Av in late July, we come full circle to Simchat Torah – Rejoicing in the Torah. Quite a journey indeed: from our darkest day as a people commemorating ultimate destruction – to one of unbridled and complete joy in celebrating our heritage of Torah and learning. And in between these two bookends of opposites, we observed our High Holidays of introspection and looking inward, as we also looked forward to improving ourselves in the New Year. Again, I am reminded of the famous line from Psalms: “Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” 

There are two holidays on the Jewish calendar which celebrate the Torah, that which we value and love most as Jews: Etz chaim hi la’machazikim ba – It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast.” On Shavuot, the early summer festival, we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and each year on that day, we receive this gift all over again – along with the responsibility to follow its commandments. But on Simchat Torah, we celebrate our never-ending commitment to learning as Jews and our ecstatic love of Torah. In the photos above, the glow on the faces of these young people in a park in Brooklyn represent this unbridled joy, as they danced for hours with the Torah scrolls. Coming at the end of the holiday cycle, there is an existential beauty in the completing of the reading of the Torah scroll on this holiday – and then immediately starting it all over again, so there is no pause, no break in our commitment. For our sages tell us that we are to study our entire lifetimes, always seeking to find new meanings in what we learn – so that it remains always new to us. The circle of life and learning.

But Simchat Torah is a truly unique holiday in other ways. This holiday is the only one on our calendar with an emotion attached – and in a sense, commanded. If Sukkot is referred to as Z’man Simchateynu – the Season of Our Joy, then Simchat Torah is the pinnacle of that joy. Essentially, we are told that we must rejoice on this day – and we all know that can be a tall order, especially during days like these. In addition, this is the only time in the year that the Torah is read in the evening. And, although not all synagogues do this, many will unroll the entire Torah on this holiday, forming a great circle. At this magical moment, the Torah is more accessible than ever, the key parts visible for all to see, as the community holds the precious parchment, with the children sitting in the center of this glorious circle of their rich heritage. Of course, this year, celebrations are virtual, but many creative options are available to try online. A loss of the familiar – a gain of new traditions.

And so, in the midst of this pandemic, with our country in turmoil, how do we reclaim joy?  Perhaps, the secret comes from something said by Rabbi Alan Lew, whom I have quoted quite a bit at this season: that deep joy is an immersion in the full depth of life, which actually includes pain, grief, and loss. We cannot control what comes, and for Lew, this offers a great release. So, I say choose joy – make it a conscious decision for yourself, much as you would other choices. Set an intention for your own happiness, focus your energy on what is good and positive in your life, make a list of the things for which you are grateful every day (even just a list of 3 every morning), and notice when others need you by stepping outside of yourself. The question suggested earlier: Can joy be commanded, as it is on Simchat Torah? I will go out on a limb to say that I think it can be. Even if life feels out of control, for a short time, we can pause in the midst of the chaos to find the gratitude for our lives and the beauty we choose to see within it.  
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach – A Sabbath of peace and a joyous holiday, 

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Photo caption: Last year, I celebrated Simchat Torah with my daughter Gabriella (seen on the left in front) and her Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Over 1,000 young people from many synagogues in the area gathered together at a park to share the great joy of this holiday!