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Going for the joy
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Going for the joy

Shemini Atzeret — Simhat Torah

Life is not a bed of roses, but it’s not a funeral either. Healthy people know the difference, and know which one to strive for. There is no shortage of pain, but neither is there shortage of joy, and it is joy we should be after. Some religions focus on suffering, death, and even martyrdom, but Judaism is not among them. Without denying the brutal reality of human suffering, we Jews stress life (“l’chaim,” we say) and joy. Nothing illustrates that message better than the week of Sukkot and the holiday following, Simhat Torah.

In Temple days, the annual highlight was not the High Holy Days, but Sukkot, when celebratory bonfires shone so brightly that “every courtyard in Jerusalem was lit up.” To the accompaniment of flutes, harps, cymbals, and blasts of the shofar, parades of celebrants danced their way into the Temple precinct, where water was poured upon the altar, a libation anticipating the winter rain on which the life-sustaining spring harvest would depend. “If you haven’t experienced this Sukkot ritual,” the Mishna says, “you do not know what real joy is.”

We still celebrate the miracle of rain, with the brilliantly composed liturgical poem “Geshem” (“Rain”), part of the liturgy for Sukkot’s final day, Shemini Atzeret. With the fall of the Temple, the concept of rain was used to symbolize Torah. An early alternative to our usual Ahava raba morning prayer acknowledged “God [who] brought up a vine from Egypt, and planted it, watering it with water from Sinai.”

With Torah central to Jewish consciousness, the supremely joyful moment moved from Sukkot to Simhat Torah, whose arrival just as Sukkot ends, however, was an accident of history. Originally, the Torah portions were divided triennially, so that the end came only every three-and-a-half years. That “triennial” cycle remained in place in Eretz Yisrael until Jews there fled the invading Crusader armies. They returned a century or so later, but by then, they had adopted the Diaspora custom of an annual reading, the ending of which just happened to fall at this time of year.

If you think Simhat Torah is joyous now, imagine what it must have been like when the Torah readings ended only every three-and-a-half years or so — in July, perhaps, or January, instead of during the supersaturated fall holiday season. Still, even on an annual basis, medieval Jews tried to squeeze every bit of joy they could into the occasion for ending the Torah and beginning it again. Not only did people circle the synagogue interior while dancing with Torah scrolls, as we do, but hours before the nighttime onset of the holiday, they lit bonfires in the synagogue courtyard and danced around the flames, even leaping back and forth over them, in daredevil fashion.

But beneath the merriment was a deeper sense of purpose: the longing for blessing. We Jews are still “a vine from Egypt, planted” by God and requiring “water from Sinai.” Medieval Jews emphasized that point with new prayers, like: “Establish the words of our rabbis, the leaders of our generation, and of their students wherever they happen to dwell…. Come to their help and to ours…. Spare us pain, and bring the one who will cause peace to be heard, announcing good tidings.”

Judaism is a religion of joy, but not just simple-minded fun. We should not overlook how Simhat Torah ends — with Genesis, where, by the next Shabbat, Adam and Eve will be expelled from Eden. The human lot is far from paradise; the Simhat Torah fanfare does not deny the reality of ordinary days ahead, when awakening to blessing will be our fondest aspiration. So dance with the Torah scroll this Simhat Torah, but think of it as “rain from Sinai,” watering the hopes and dreams of a world where we still ask God to “spare us pain,” and where “good tidings” are still a prayer.

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