As Sukkot draws to a close, the final day of celebration, known as Simchat Torah, engulfs the Jewish world in the celebration of the completion of the annual cycle of reading through the Torah from Bereshit (Genesis) through Devarim (Deuteronomy). For one day, the People of the Book celebrate the Torah, but perhaps most importantly, those who dedicate the time and effort to its study and to the internalizing of its timeless messages.
The annual celebration is marked in the synagogue through festive songs and traditional circle dancing with an added special dimension—the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and danced with by the spirited participants. On the face of it, it would seem that the dancing is in celebration of the Torah, and while it definitely in part is, the liturgy, sung in the spirit of the event, teaches us a much wider message—that the holiday’s true focus is the celebration of the Torah’s dedicated learners.
The song, whose original author is unknown and has become one of the central songs traditionally sung worldwide over the holiday, is called “MiPi El” (“From God’s mouth”). Its first line extolls God’s might; the second praises Ben Amram (the son of Amram—i.e., Moses); the third hones in on the Torah itself with Ein G’dolah ka’Torah (“There is no greatness like the Torah”); and the fourth, V’ein Dorsha k’Yisrael (“And there are none who engage in its study like Israel”) on its learners. For the remaining 22 stanzas of the song, the messages repeat with different verbiage focusing on praising G-d, praising Ben Amram, praising the Torah itself, and then focusing the climax of its praise on the people of Israel who toil in its study, understanding and observance.
I might suggest that while the Torah scroll is lifted high and joyfully brought into the circle of our dance, we are actually demonstrating that the holiday of Simchat Torah is not so much a celebration of the Torah itself (after all, we have a holiday for that which we call Shavuot that falls exactly seven weeks after the celebration of Passover), as much as it is a celebration of our ongoing study of that Torah from generation to generation. The dancing in circles, the songs and the joy expressed as we dance with that Torah celebrate our relationship to the Torah, our connection to previous generations, and the privilege we have to be among those who continue to discover its timeless texts and remarkably relevant messages.
We pull our children into the dancing, give them flags to wave and hoist them up on our shoulders because it is they who we must empower to carry on the study of Torah into the future. They are the ultimate assurance that the value we place on the ongoing Torah learning will not end with us, but it will continue to be a part of the lives of the next generation.
A story is told that Abraham (“Abe”) Foxman, who previously served as the longtime national director the Anti-Defamation League, survived the Holocaust having been taken in by a Catholic family. Following the war’s end, still a child, he was reunited with his Jewish parents and went with them to Vilnius. They arrived, along with dozens of other survivors, and it was to the city’s desecrated and now boarded-up synagogue they went to celebrate Simchat Torah.
Upon entering, they found no Torah scrolls to dance with, as the Nazis and their collaborators had stolen and destroyed them. One of the other Jews in the room—a soldier in the Red Army—asked if the Foxman boy was Jewish, and when told yes, was flabbergasted; he had traveled thousands of kilometers across the territories Russia had conquered and had not seen one Jewish child who survived the war until that moment. He then asked permission to take the child and put him on his shoulders to dance with him.
There was no Torah present, but there was a future learner of that Torah, and dancing with the young boy hoisted up high was—perhaps for a community absent of a scroll—the manifestation of the true joy of Simchat Torah.
So it was there in Vilnius, and so it is for us today. The celebration of Simchat Torah is the celebration of the simcha of Torah—the joy we are privileged to experience when we immerse ourselves in the transformative study of Torah.