Rabbi Dr René Pfertzel 13 October 2019
The festival of Sukkot begins on the 15th of the month of Tishrei and is concluded on the 22nd day of the same month with a festival called Sh’mini Atzeret – Simchat Torah. Sh’mini Atzeret (in Hebrew, the eighth day of the Assembly, or closure), marks the end of Sukkot as well as the day when we finish reading the last words of Deuteronomy (parashat v’zot Ha-b’rachah) and the first verses of Genesis (parashat Bereishit). In traditionalist communities, Jews keep two separate days, one for Sh’mini Atzeret, and one for Simchat Torah. Progressive Jews follow the custom of the Land of Israel and combine both festivals, both held on the 8th day of Sukkot. The practice of concluding the Torah cycle on this day is mentioned in the Talmud (Meg. 31a), but only as part of the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret. The Simchat Torah celebration as we know it today dates back only from the 14th century, and is mentioned in the halachic work of the German Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the Arba’ah Turim (“Four Columns”).
Simchat Torah is a joyful celebration of the end of a cycle – the Torah reading cycle-, and the start of a new one. It beautifully concludes the festival cycle that began on Rosh Hashanah, and makes us aware of cycles and achievements in our lives. The whole process of the High Holy Days that started on the 1st of Tishrei is a call to remind ourselves of the cyclical dimension of our lives. We are six months away from another meaningful festival that celebrates cycles, Pesach, where, we are told, we are collectively invited to move from slavery to freedom. During the month of Tishrei, the message is the same: we leave behind us our old life, aware of our past errors, and we begin a new part of our life refreshed and renewed.
On Simchat Torah, we parade our scrolls in the synagogue, dance while holding them, and we sing joyful songs. It may be a relief that this intense period of Tishrei is finally over, and that we can now get on with our lives, with the assurance that God walks alongside with us, and dance with us on that day.
Liberating also is the value of impermanence, so central to Sukkot. Living in booths reminds us that nothing is to be taken for granted in life, that the very nature of life is to be ephemeral. Instead of being anxious about it, our Tradition teaches us to be grateful for what we have, and to take comfort in the teachings of our people. There is a Hebrew saying, gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass, that comes from Middle Eastern wisdom and made its way into Jewish folklore. The knowledge and the mindfulness that life is finite is a cause for joy, because we are called to make the best of our lives and to be grateful for God’s bounty. Torah’s wisdom is indeed “a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and all who cling to it find happiness” (Proverbs 3:18).
Moadim L’Simchah, May it be for you a time of happiness!
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