Simchat Torah (rejoicing with the Torah) beginning at sundown on Friday is the final day of the fall Jewish holidays. The Torah, or Jewish Written Law, consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible known more commonly to non-Jews as the Old Testament, which were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai. These five books include within them all of the biblical laws of Judaism. The Torah also is known as the Chumash, Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses.
The word Torah has multiple meanings that include a scroll made from a kosher animal parchment with the entire text of the Five Books of Moses written on it; the text of the Five Books of Moses, written in any format; and, the entire corpus of Jewish law. This includes the Written and the Oral Law.
The day is a celebration of the annual completion of weekly readings of the Pentateuch. Although the day is not biblically mandated, Jews celebrate this day as a continuation of the theme of Shemini Atzeret, the gathering of the eighth day.
Shemini Atzeret, according to tradition, was added to the holiday of Sukkot as a day for one final celebration before returning from the yearly fall pilgrimage to Jerusalem, one of three times in the year Jews were commanded to go to Jerusalem. It was a chance to give people one final, carved-out spiritual moment before returning to the mundane, post-harvest season. Deuteronomy 16:14 expressed “and you should rejoice in your festival,” as a specific guideline for Sukkot. By extension, Shemini Atzeret also includes rejoicing as the primary goal of the day.
What is the joy of Sukkot and by extension Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah? Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur spiritually are challenging festivals in that they focus on frailty of life, which we hope and pray this year will be good like previous years but we can’t be entirely confident.
The days revolve around the concept best expressed in the haunting prayer called “U’Netaneh Tokef,” which describes how G-d judges the entire world for the upcoming year.
After Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we believe G-d’s judgment is sealed, there is a sense of release from the awe of those High Holy days. Five days later, with the start of Sukkot, the Jewish year shifts to expressing relief and hope through the command to rejoice. The command to rejoice on Sukkot is about the hope of success, that G-d has granted us another good and sweet year.
When celebrating, there is a peak period of joy followed by the sense that things come to a close. We begin to feel the foreboding of joy coming to an end. It is natural to begin thinking about the practical, day-to-day things that need to get accomplished instead of being in the moment.
The same is true for Sukkot and the end of the holiday season. Even while celebrating during Sukkot, one begins thinking about returning to the regular weekly grind instead of being in the moment that is the holiday. As such, when the Torah offers the extra day, its goal is to help people be in the moment just a little longer, culminating in one final celebration.
Jewish tradition thus includes the annual completion of the Torah with the immediate restart of the creation story to begin a new cycle as the final piece to rejoicing. Rejoicing over the completion of something and then cycling back shows true appreciation for what has been accomplished.
As the fall holidays come to a conclusion, I want to offer everyone a prayer that we find joy in the moment and allow the joy we feel to carry us through our daily lives.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner is chaplain of The Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, which is comprised of Stein Assisted Living Residence and includes the Jaffa Gate Memory Care Neighborhood, Stein Hospice, The Wilentz Senior Residence, Wilf Transport, Wilf At Home, and The Foundation. For more information, call 732-568-1155, email firstname.lastname@example.org or click www.wilfcampus.org.