Tag Archives: simchat torah

Sukkot and Simchat Torah: Abundant Life

Without Torah it is impossible for an individual to say that his life is full of things that cause him to offer G-d thanks; even if he enjoys mostly good times, he still cannot consider himself to be vitally alive, as most of a person’s time is occupied with food, drink and sleep, earning a living, etc.

A Jew, however, is inextricably bound to the “Torah of life,” and is therefore able to imbue all that he does with life; even while engaged in mundane affairs he cleaves to G-d by remembering that “All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven,” and “In all your ways shall you know Him.” (Mishlei 3:6; Tur and Shulchan Aruch , Orach Chayim 231.)

The result? “And you who cleave to the L-rd your G-d are entirely alive ,” (Devarim 4:4.) every moment of every day. Thus a person can and must thank G-d for granting him life and enabling him to reach this occasion.

“Shehecheyanu for Torah”
from “The Chassidic Dimension” series
Lesson for Berachah and Simchas Torah
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

I periodically encounter some Jewish teachings and commentaries that apparently elevate the Jewish people at the expense of everyone else in the world. That is, it seems as if, at least in some corners of Judaism, that Jews see themselves as more spiritually elevated than Gentiles, regardless of any particular Gentile’s religious tradition, including Christianity. At first blush, this seems to smack of elitism if not downright bigotry, but we should remember that through the vast majority of Jewish history, at one time or another, most of the non-Jewish nations have tried to evict, enslave, or exterminate the Jews, in part, because of their “choseness” by God as a people.

It is a fact that God did give the Torah to the Children of Israel and it has been passed down, generation by generation to their modern descendents, the Jewish people. Yes, there was a “mixed multitude” of Gentiles standing with the Israelites at Sinai who also agreed to the full conditions of the covenant, but within a few short generations, not one distinctly Gentile person remained among Israel according to the Biblical record. They had all been completely assimilated into larger Israel, and their descendants became indistinguishable from Israelites who were fully, genetically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

So if we choose to believe that without the Torah, the full yoke of the 613 mitzvot, (or those two hundred and some that can be performed today, especially outside the Land of Israel) that life cannot be lived to the fullest, then are the Jews saying that we Gentiles do not truly live our lives full of all good things?

Perhaps, at least according to the Chassidic Dimension reading I quoted above. But that’s not the end of the story, particularly for Christians.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5, 14 (ESV)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

John 5:24-29 (ESV)

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

John 10:7-10 (ESV)

It appears that the Gospel of John, the most “mystic” of the Gospels, at least according to Paul Philip Levertoff, has a lot to say about the life we have in Jesus Christ. And if indeed the Master is “the Word made flesh” who lived among his people, and he thus commanded his Jewish disciples to pass on that Word and make disciples of the nations of the world, then although we do not possess the Torah as the Jews do; as the set of conditions they must fulfill as part of the Sinai covenant, we possess the essence; the life of “Torah” in our faith and our salvation. We possess life to the fullest and have it abundantly.

Can we not also consider ourselves now “vitally alive” as the Jewish people do? Does that life not cause us to cry out in thanks and joy to God for all of His love, gifts, and provisions, even at those moments when we may be suffering?

Yahrtzeit of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), founder of the Breslov chasidic movement. Rebbe Nachman lived in Poland and the Ukraine, where he inspired thousands of Jews to greater love of God. Though he suffered the loss of his son and wife, Rebbe Nachman said: “You may fall to the lowest depths, heaven forbid, but no matter how low you have fallen, it is still forbidden to give up hope.” A few of his most famous teachings are: “It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy,” and “All the world is a narrow bridge — but the main thing is not to be afraid” (now a popular Hebrew song, Kol Ha-Olam Kulo). Every year on Rosh Hashana, tens of thousands of Jews travel to Uman (Ukraine) to pray at the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman.

Day in Jewish History, Tishei 18

A chassid once traveled to one of the Chabad rebbes. He related to the rebbe that his deceased teacher had appeared to him in a dream with a frightening message: it had been decreed in heaven that one of this chassid’s children would pass away that year.

The rebbe heard his words, sighed, and remained silent. A reaction that certainly did not bode well.

As it was shortly before the holiday of Sukkot, the chassid remained till after the holiday. When it was time for him to return home, he approached the rebbe for his blessing. The rebbe happily assured him that his family would be well.

“Besides,” the rebbe asked, “what special deed did you do on Simchat Torah?”

The chassid recounted how during the hakafot he was standing on the side crying when he remembered that, after all, it was Simchat Torah! He washed his face and joined the dancing, ignoring his dread.

“You should know,” the rebbe said, “this is what caused the change in your situation.”

-Rabbi Yossy Gordon
“The Power of Joy”
Commentary on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:4 (ESV)

But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”

Luke 20:37-38 (ESV)

We are called not just to abundant life but to joy through our salvation in Christ. The Jewish Messiah allows us to partake in the blessings of such a completely full life that even in our tears, when we allow ourselves to be completely aware of God and His Presence among us, within pain and grief, there is still the light of joy. We are alive, and even those who have passed on to the “long sleep” remain alive in Him.

the-joy-of-torahIt’s difficult to communicate to most Christians the sheer happiness and celebration that is attached to Sukkot and Simchat Torah unless they’ve actually participated in those events and let themselves be immersed in such joy. And yet, even if we don’t “get” these or any of the other Jewish festivals, we should get why they are celebrating. The reason they’re celebrating is the same reason we should be celebrating. God is with us. How can we not feel completely, intensely alive?

Before we came to God through Christ, we were dead in our sins, completely separated from our Creator and so numb spiritually, that we lacked the ability to even be aware of God. (see Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13) Now we are not only alive, but abundantly and exceedingly alive. We have life to the fullest. We have life that extends beyond the mere beating of our hearts. We are alive in God.

This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24 (ESV)

Good Shabbos and Chag Sameach.

V’zot Haberachah: When the Party Ends

Hebrew FireAnd this is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed upon the Children of Israel before his death. He said: Hashem came from Sinai – having shone forth to them from Seir, having appeared from Mount Paran, and then approached with some of the holy myriads – from His right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them. Indeed, You loved the tribes grately, all its holy ones were in Your hands; for the planted themselves at Your feet, bearing [the yoke] of Your utterances: “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.”Deuteronomy 33:1-4

The Rambam writes: “Moshe ordained that on every festival, the Jews should read [a portion of the Torah which reflects] its content.” He continues by listing the passages read on different festivals, and concludes that on Simchas Torah, we read Zos HaBerachah. This implies that the reading of Zos HaBerachah on Simchas Torah shares a connection with the holiday itself; it is not read at that time merely because it is customary to conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings on that festival.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“A Fountain of Blessing”
V’zos Haberachah

The final portion of Deuteronomy is always read on Simchat Torah, the “Rejoicing of the Torah”, as one Torah cycle ends and another begins. It is a reminder that all things end and yet all things are new. The gift of God’s Torah to the Jews is celebrated with much laughter and dancing. In the synagogue, all of the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and everyone carries them and dances and sings and cheers in joyous appreciation of God’s goodness. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah also formally end the Jewish holiday season and, the following Shabbat, the reset button is pushed and Parashoat B’resheet starts another cycle of reading.

Yet in the midst of tremendous victory, Rabbi Touger chooses to remind his readers of one of Israel’s greatest tragedies.

In this context, however, a difficulty arises: Rashi explains that the final phrase of the Torah, l’einei kol Yisrael, “before the eyes of the entire Jewish people,” refers to the breaking of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Our Sages attach great importance to conclusions, explaining that they summarize the content of all the preceding concepts. Why then does the conclusion of the entire Torah and in particular, the conclusion of the reading V’Zos HaBerachah mention a subject which seemingly reflects the disgrace of the Jewish people, for the tablets were broken because of the nation’s sin in worshipping the Golden Calf.

However, to understand why such a time of shame should be introduced into the culmination of a season of celebration, we have to go back into the symbolism for both Sukkot and for Simchat Torah:

What is the inner content of Simchas Torah? When contrasting the sacrificial offerings brought during Sukkos to those brought on Simchas Torah, our Sages explain that the 70 bulls offered on Sukkos refer to the 70 nations of the world. The one bull offered on Simchas Torah refers to the Jewish people, the “one nation.”

Simchas Torah is a day when “Israel and the King are all alone.” This is a time when the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish people is expressed in joyous celebration. This concept is reflected in the name of the Torah reading, V’Zos HaBerachah, lit. “This is the blessing,” and its content, which focuses entirely on the blessings given the Jewish people, and the praise of their uniqueness.

PrayingThat Sukkot includes the nations and not just the Jews is perfectly understandable, given Zechariah 14:16-19, when all the survivors of the war against Israel from among the Gentile nations will be commanded to send representatives to Jerusalem for Sukkot and pay homage to the King in Messianic days. For a Gentile such as myself to celebrate Sukkot now is something of a taste of things to come. But there is something else.

If Sukkot is an invitation for everyone to join God and God’s chosen people, Simchat Torah is a time when, according to Rabbi Touger, the nations are “included out”. This rather punctuates the fact that the Torah was given just to Israel and that the special holiday of honoring the giving of the Torah at Sinai is just between God and His One Nation: the Jews. While God is the Father and Creator of the people of the world, it’s as if the Father wants to have a special day with only His first born. It is also a time when, remembering the Golden Calf, God consoles His special son and brings His son back from his past shame and returns the son to God’s love.

This also explains why Moses broke the first set of tablets, out of God’s great love for Israel:

To explain: When describing the reason for the breaking of the tablets, Rashi states:

To express with an analogy: A king journeyed to a distant country, leaving his betrothed with maids. Because of the depravity of the maids, the reputation of the intended also became tarnished. The bridesman took the initiative and ripped up the wedding contract, saying: “If the king will order to kill her, I will protest, saying that she was not yet his wife.”

The king is the Holy One, blessed be He; the maids, the mixed multitude [of converts who joined the Jews after the Exodus]. The bridesman is Moshe, and the betrothed…, the Jewish people.

Rashi’s intent is to explain that Moshe broke the Tablets to protect the Jewish people from G-d’s wrath. Here we see the unique importance of the Jewish nation. The Torah is G-d’s “delight, frolicking before Him at all times.” And within the Torah, the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved were “the work of G-d… and the writing of G-d,” given to Moshe by G-d Himself. And yet when the future of the Jewish people was at stake, Moshe was willing to break the tablets without hesitation.

Why did Moshe take such a step? Because there is nothing not even the Torah which G-d cherishes more than a Jew.

For a Jew, this makes perfect sense, but for a Christian it is confusing. This is especially true in light of the explanation that the Golden Calf incident is attributed largely to the Gentile “converts” to Judaism, casting Gentiles in an untrustworthy light. But if a Jew considers himself God’s first born, a Christian acknowledges the first born of the Creator as ultimately expressed in the person of Jesus Christ:

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three sukkot – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. –Luke 9:28-36

Simchat TorahWhat this all means, I don’t exactly know. I do know that the Jewish people have always been special to God and they always will be special, even above all the other people of the earth and yes, even above Christianity, those of us among the nations who have chosen to be disciples of the Master.

Even Paul went first to the Jews and only afterward to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16; Romans 2:10), though he was specifically sent as an emissary to the nations. This should be a message for those Christians who tend to get a little full of themselves contemplating the idea that somehow the church has replaced Israel, while ignoring Paul’s warning in Romans 11:24. Indeed, all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).

But while we continue to eat and fellowship and enjoy Shemini Atzeret, this “extra” day of Sukkot, we are about to be escorted out of the hall and politely asked to leave the party, for Simchat Torah is a private affair between the Jews and God. The last day of the great celebration is limited to a very special people who have, above all the nations, endured extreme hardship and suffering for the sake of keeping God’s Torah and His Shabbat when the rest of the world was wallowing in pools of pagan savagery.

Waiting to danceHow then can the rest of us, though we know God is right, console ourselves as we stand on the outside of God’s special and unique love, looking in? How can we watch the dancing around the synagogue with the Torah while we sit alone in the dark? Only by remembering this and knowing that we are not completely rejected because of God’s love for the Jews.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. –John 3:16

There are many kinds of barriers: Those from within and those from without. Barriers between people. Barriers that prevent you from doing good things.

Barriers of your own mind and your own hesitations. There are the barriers that exist simply because you are a limited being.

Joy breaks through all barriers.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Joy Unleashed”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Someday, we will be asked to dance as well.

Torah of the Night

In the nightThe Gemara extrapolates from the verse – “from night until morning” – that there is no other service that is performed specifically at night other than the Menorah. Ben Yehoyada suggests that the reason the service of the Menorah is specifically at night is that the Menorah alludes to Torah and the primary time to study Torah is at night when a person’s mind is clear and he is free of his daily responsibilities. This follows Chazal’s statement in Eruvin (65a) that the night was created for Torah study. This concept is also recorded in Shulchan Aruch where he writes that one must be more careful with the learning that he does at night than the learning that he does during the day. Mishnah Berurah further elaborates on the importance and value of studying Torah at night and writes that when Torah scholars study Torah at night it is considered as though they are performing the service of the Bais Hamikdash. Furthermore, the Divine Presence stands opposite those who study Torah at night.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Studying Torah at night”
Menachos 89

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn you thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Music of the Night
from “Phantom of the Opera”
by Andrew Lloyd Webber

If you consider “night” to be any time the sun isn’t shining in the sky, then this teaching certainly fits onto the foundation upon which I laid this blog and what Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at Chabad.org presents here:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

A continuation of the commentary of Menachos 89 seems to support this idea, which works well for me as an early riser.

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

Other Poskim support the opposite viewpoint, advocating for Torah study in the evening and then reciting the Tikun Chatzos before retiring. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be the difference between being a morning person and a night person.

For me, it’s helpful to start the day pondering God. Each day in an ordinary work week has its fair share of challenges and disappointments and, like a house, how or if it will stand depends on the solidity of the foundation. To build on “the Rock”, so to speak, means your “house” has a better chance of weathering storms. I suppose that’s why I created “Morning Meditations” rather than “Evening Meditations”.

ShavuotAt sundown this evening, the festival of Shavuot begins (at the end of the Omer count), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Sinai. It is one of two times of year (the other is Simchat Torah) where God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people is specifically recognized and celebrated.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post regarding my small understanding of the Torah. To continue from that beginning, the Torah is the illustrative force in the life of the Jewish people and it defines them as who they are, why they exist, and their specialness in the eyes of God. Since the days of Moses, “the Torah was to go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (paraphrasing Micah 4:2) and even traditional Jewish sages admit that Christianity has been one vehicle by which the principles and teachings of God have reached an unbelieving world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shavuot and Pentecost, the observance of the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, happen on the same day.

This should be a night of joyous celebration as we let ourselves fully realize how God has abundantly reached out to humanity with His love, His wisdom, and His mercy. Both Jew and Christian can consider themselves greatly blessed by all that God has done for them; what God has done for us all.

But my greatest joy is not in singing or eating or in partaking of any other outward celebration with people, but in arising early each morning, before the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, and alone in the silence, opening the pages of the Bible, delaying the start of day for a tiny march of minutes, while I pray, thank God, and then meditate upon His Word, letting it illuminate the darkness of the night.

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo. Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Penetrating Wisdom”