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Through The Eyes of a Woman

Shemini Atzeres — Simchas Torah: Departing but not Separating

The mitzvah of reciting a blessing over the arbaah minim (comprising the lulav, esrog, hadassim and aravos) and the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah are observed during all the days of Sukkos, except for the last day. On the last day of Sukkos, the day of Shemini Atzeres (and outside of Israel, Simchas Torah[3] as well) we don't take the lulav and esrog etc., anymore, and we don't sit in the sukkah. (Outside of Israel it is a custom to sit in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeres, but one does not recite the blessing Leisheiv baSukkah.)

In one of his sichos about the last days of Sukkos, the Rebbe cites a famous parable to explain why we have the Yom-Tov of Shemini Atzeres. We went through so many yamim tovim in Tishrei; what is the need for another Yom-Tov? The parable tells about a king who had a dear friend who came to visit him. When the time came for this friend to leave, the king just couldn't bear to part with him, and asked him to stay just one more day. This is the idea of Shemini Atzeres; HaShem wants one more day with the Jewish People.

The source of this parable is the Midrash. In explaining it, the Midrash uses the following expression: Kasha alai preidaschem -- "Your separation is very hard for me." Literally, of course, this means that the departure of his friend is very difficult for the king. However, from a close analysis of the words of this statement, the Rebbe gleans an amazing insight into the real meaning of the words of the Midrash. The expression used is: preidaschem -- "your separation." In other words, if there is separation, it comes from you. It is not G-d who ever leaves the Jewish People, but vice versa. So, if, G-d forbid, we feel separated from HaShem, if we feel abandoned and alone, this is only because we have drifted away, not because He has departed. "I didn't leave you," says the King, "you left Me. Furthermore, this separation is just as difficult for Me as it is for you."

The Rebbe gives another interpretation, perhaps even more insightful than the previous one: Kasha alai preidaschem -- "Your separation (in the sense of discord and dissension) is what is difficult for Me," says G-d. "When Jews do not get along together, when there is a distinct lack of ahavas Yisrael, love for one's fellow Jew, this is what hurts Me," says G-d.

Every day in the final blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer, we recite the words, Barcheinu Avinu kulano ke-echad beor Panecha -- "Bless us our Father, as one, with the light of Your Countenance..." That is, if we are as one, then we will receive G-d's blessing.

So HaShem says, "When there is strife among you, so that one Jew is separated from the next, when you separate yourselves from each other, then I cannot be with you. If you want Me to be with you, then you have to be with each other."

II

The Rebbe very often emphasizes another idea -- the joy of Sukkos. The entire week of Sukkos is called zman simchaseinu, the time of our rejoicing, which is expressed in nightly dancing celebrating the drawing of the water to be poured on the altar during Temple times. This is called Simchas Beis Ha-Sho'evah -- the water-drawing celebration. This rejoicing reaches its peak on Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.

Why do we celebrate Simchas Torah precisely in this way? On Rosh HaShanah we celebrate by blowing the shofar, on Yom Kippur we fast and pray for an entire day, and on Sukkos we celebrate by taking the four minim and by sitting in the sukkah. Why do we celebrate Simchas Torah -- literally, "the joy of [completing] the Torah" -- by dancing? Why don't we celebrate it by learning Torah? This is the Yom-Tov on which we finish reading the entire Torah from the first parshah,[4] Bereishis, to the last, Zos HaBerachah, which we read on Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. So why don't we simply go to lectures and shiurim on these days, rather than merely dance? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to have marathon learning sessions in order to celebrate the completion of reading the Torah? Although it is taught that on Simchas Torah, the Torah dances and celebrates with us, the question still stands: "why can't the Torah be happy when everyone's learning it?" Wouldn't the Torah be happy if it saw that everybody was learning it? After all, why is it called Simchas Torah if not to mean the joy of the Torah itself -- the Torah is b'simcha that people are learning? And so why do we dance, davka, on Simchas Torah?

The Rebbe gives several answers to this question. First, when people are dancing, you see the achdus -- the unity among them -- very strongly. By way of contrast, when a teacher is teaching Torah, it is obvious to him that not everyone in the class has the same level of understanding. He can teach some people and they get it right away; some get a blank look so that he feels like he's lost them; others are somewhere in the middle. You don't see the achdus when you teach Torah -- instead, you see the differences. Another example: Pesach (Passover) night at the Seder table. When you look at the people sitting around the Seder, you can see that everybody is doing the Seder differently -- one enjoys this part, one enjoys that part. You don't see that everyone is the same. However, when people dance together, you cannot tell if this one is a big professor, and this one is a beginner who can barely read Hebrew. Everybody is doing the same thing -- picking up their feet and jumping and singing. You don't see the differences between their intellectual levels or even their spiritual levels -- how frum (pious) this one is, how frum that one is. You just see everyone doing the same thing -- dancing. Dancing emphasizes the sameness, not the differences. That is why we don't celebrate by learning, because with learning, all those who do not have such good brains say, "I wish I could learn, but I just don't understand," and it makes them feel depressed. And even among those who do understand there are differences. It's not achdus.

So HaShem says, "I want this day where everybody can participate in the same way, in unison." That is why when we dance with the Torah, we keep it closed. We don't open up the Torah scroll so that everybody can read it; we close it up, tie it, and cover it with its mantle. This shows that we are accepting the Torah as it is, even if we do not understand it all. Because if the Torah is open, some people could read it, while others could not, and would feel bad. Like this we say, "Whatever level we're on, we accept the Torah and dance with the Torah for what it is." It's like accepting the Yoke of Heaven upon yourself, even though it transcends your understanding.

Another interesting thing is that when you dance, you don't usually dance with your head. You dance with your feet, the lowest part of the body. But when the feet jump, even the head is raised. This signifies that even the Jews on the very lowest levels also have a place in the Torah. In fact, on Simchas Torah their place is primary.

Imagine a group of men, some of whom are very prominent scholars, roshei yeshivah, and some of whom are just ordinary Jews, and others of whom are the very simplest of Jews. If a dance would start, who do you think would be most fervent, jumping around the most? The roshei yeshivah or the simpler Jews? In the old days, the Talmud tells us that it was the Torah scholars who danced the longest and in the liveliest way. But today, it seems that the scholarly learning gets in the way of the dancing. In other words, today who dances most fervently? The "feet" -- those who are presently at the lowest level of learning. So on Simchas Torah we see the superiority of the feet -- the simplest Jews like to dance the most.

It is also explained in Chassidus that joy is the kind of emotion that unifies people, as opposed to the emotions that we have during the other Yamim Tovim. Let's take Rosh HaShanah as an example. On Rosh HaShanah, the Jew is involved in doing teshuvah (repentance). He is serious; he doesn't need anybody. You want to be alone when you're meditating, when you're thinking about a certain thing. But when you have good news, don't you want to burst, to tell somebody, or even everybody? It is especially when there is joy that you want to have many people over; you want to share. Simchah is the kind of emotion that breeds togetherness, whereas seriousness, or reflection, tends to prefer solitude. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, you do not need so many people. But sharing the joy of Simchas Torah makes for togetherness.

Simchah is also self-transcending -- bitul, as it is called in Chassidus. Why? Because when one involves himself with teshuvah, for example, then just as a scholar could get arrogant by thinking, "I've learned so much," "I'm so knowledgeable," so one who does teshuvah could also think, "What a good teshuvah I did! Boy, did I do a cheshbon hanefesh (critical self-examination)!" But when you are in a true state of joy, b'simchah, you lose your sense of self. When someone is happy, or something good happens and you are in the spirit of joy, you don't feel your "I" so much. In fact, you feel more humble in a moment of simchah. Simchah is the opposite of arrogance and isolation. When one is in a mood of simchah, he feels togetherness with other people. This is why our Sages tell us that "joy breaks all boundaries." It breaks barriers and brings out the achdus, the inherent unity between Jews, which reflects the inherent unity of HaShem.

The Torah writes:[5] Tachas asher lo avadta es HaShem Elokecha besimchah..., veavadta es oyvecha -- "Because you did not serve the Lord your G-d in happy times, you will serve your enemies." The AriZal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the famous Kabbalist of Safed, interpreted the passage as follows: "Because you did not serve the Lord your G-d with joy, you will serve your enemies." Serving HaShem is not enough. You are expected to serve Him with simchah.


I would like to conclude with a beautiful story, one that shows how important simchah is. It's a true story that took place 200 years ago, in the times of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. As you know, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was a great tzaddik (saintly individual) who had ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration). In his time, the country was ruled by feudal lords, who lived extravagantly and were generally cruel to the Jews who lived and worked on their estates. In Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's city there was a paritz (feudal lord) who had arrested an entire Jewish family because they had not paid their rent. It had been a difficult year, and it was hard for them to pay. Nevertheless the paritz had threatened that if they did not pay the entire rent, the whole family would rot away in his dungeon, until someone would pay the astronomical sum of 300 rubles that they owed him. So the whole family was thrown into a dungeon. This took place some days before Yom Kippur.

When the community of Berditchev heard the sad news, everyone wept. The family's life was in mortal danger. One of the chassidim of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak heard about the matter and decided to take responsibility for the mitzvah of ransoming the family, the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim. "How can I go about my daily affairs," he thought, "when the lives of an entire Jewish family are in danger in the jail of the paritz? It's terrible!"

So he went around from house to house telling the story of that unfortunate family. However, while everyone was very sympathetic, they were not very rich. People gave him whatever they could, but when he counted what he collected, it was only a fraction of the 300 rubles he needed. The chassid did not know what to do. So it was, that on the eve of Yom Kippur he was racking his brain, "Where can I get 300 rubles, such a large sum of money?" Then he remembered that on the edge of town there was a bar, frequented by some wealthy Jews who had strayed from the path of Yiddishkeit. So he went there hoping that perhaps the sad story of the imprisoned family might make them open their hearts and their pockets. He went there and saw quite a large crowd of Jews. Although it was the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, they didn't know or care about making the proper preparations. They were drinking and laughing, and playing cards. They were in a different world altogether. The chassid went over to one group and began to tell the story of the family in the paritz's dungeon: "A whole family, including the mother and her little children, are in mortal danger! You have to give something!" The Jews started whispering among themselves, and then said, "OK, we'll make a deal with you. We will give you a hundred rubles, a third of the amount you need, from just these guys around this table, if you will drink a whole glass of 96-proof vodka." This was on the eve of Yom Kippur, don't forget. The chassid first thought, "My goodness, if I drink a glass of this 96-proof vodka, I'll pass out! It's the eve of Yom Kippur! A Jew should not drink on the eve of Yom Kippur because he will not be able to concentrate while intoxicated. How can I agree to such a ridiculous condition?" But then he thought, "Am I thinking only about myself? What about this family? Their lives are in danger! It's a case of pikuach nefesh! I cannot be selfish. I must think of them!"

So he said to the Jews in the bar, "OK, I accept your deal." But they started laughing, "Look, this religious guy is going to drink a glass of vodka and get drunk?!" However, they kept their word. The chassid drank the vodka and they gave him the hundred rubles. Although his head was already spinning, he thought, "Well, it worked at this table, I'll try the next table as well." So he went over to another table and said, "You know, your friends at that table just gave me a hundred rubles. Maybe you also could make a little collection? I know you have money." So they said, "We'll only give you a hundred rubles if you do what you did at that table. Are you willing to drink a second cup of 96-proof vodka? If you do, we'll also give you a hundred rubles."

At first he thought, "My goodness one cup, OK! But, if I drink two cups of this stuff, I'll be so drunk that I won't be able to say a word. What kind of Yom Kippur will it be? I may as well not go to shul!" However, his second thought was, "What, am I thinking only of my Yom Kippur? I ought to be thinking of getting those poor people released!" So he said, "OK, I'll do it. By this time his knees were already shaking, but he drank a second cup. They kept their word and gave him the money, so he now had 200 rubles. All he needed was 100 more. He had estimated that it would take him weeks to collect, but suddenly he had two-thirds of the money. So he thought, "Well, I'm going good. I'll try the table in the other corner."

He went over and said, "Look, your friends gave me 200 rubles. All I need is 100 rubles more, and I can get the family out today, before Yom Kippur! It's really a big mitzvah, and I know you people have Jewish souls. You gotta do it!" So they said, "It's a deal; we'll give you a hundred rubles, but you have to drink another cup of this strong, strong vodka." The chassid said to himself, "This is getting out of hand already, you know. If I drink three cups of vodka, I'll be lying on the floor all Yom Kippur. I won't even be able to get up until after the fast day! What kind of fast will it be? What kind of teshuvah can I do, drunk as a paritz?" But of course, he thought, "This is ridiculous. I can't think only of myself; I have to think of the family." So he drank the third cup and his head started to reel. He could hardly stand up, but he had the 300 rubles. He then said to one of the people, "Look, I cannot walk right now. I want you to do me a favor. You gave me the money; now, please take me to the paritz. I'm afraid that I'll collapse on the way."

So the chassid left the bar, and was escorted to the paritz. He gave him the money, and the family was released. On the eve of Yom Kippur. The father kissed him and hugged him; they just could not express their gratitude enough to him. But the chassid said to the man who was just released from the dungeon, "Do me one favor. I just drank three cups of this vodka and I cannot stand up. Please do me a favor: don't kiss me, don't hug me. Just get me to shul, and put me on one of the back benches. If I'm going to pass out, I'd rather do so in the atmosphere of Reb Levi Yitzchak and the shul, than in my bed at home."

They brought him to the shul, and he passed out on a bench in the corner. Meanwhile, everyone else started coming to shul wearing their white kittels. When they saw this well-known chassid passed out in a drunken stupor on the bench, they couldn't believe it. On the eve of Yom Kippur? They never heard of such a crazy thing! "Is that what's-his-name drunk and sleeping on the bench, without his kittel?! It looks like he doesn't even know it's Yom Kippur!"

Eventually, the introductory prayer of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidrei, was started. At this time, the custom is to take out all the Torah scrolls from the Ark and hold them. Suddenly, as they were taking them out, the chassid woke up. Being totally intoxicated, he thought it was Simchas Torah, for the Torah scrolls are taken out on that night also. So he got up from his bench, and started jumping and dancing around the shul, singing at the top of his voice. Everyone stared at him, wondering if he had lost his mind. They had never seen such behavior from such a normal person. "First he's sleeping, and now he's dancing. He thinks it's Simchas Torah; he must be crazy!" they whispered. They were about to throw him out of the shul when Reb Levi Yitzchak said, "Leave him alone. He earned it. He deserves it. Don't touch him." The chassid danced joyfully the entire night.

Finally, when Yom Kippur was over, they asked Reb Levi Yitzchak, "Why did you tell us to leave him alone? Wasn't it a disgusting way to behave, for a drunk to dance during the entire Yom Kippur service?"

Reb Levi Yitzchak replied, "I want you to understand something very important. The month of Tishrei is like a ladder that we climb. We start in Elul and go up to Rosh HaShanah, then we go up another step to Yom Kippur, and then to Sukkos. We keep climbing; each Yom-Tov is like another rung. Simchas Torah, with the togetherness of all the Jewish People united joyfully with the Torah, is the peak, the climax. When you've reached that rung, you've nowhere higher to go. This Jew, because of the mesirus nefesh that he showed for another Jew -- sacrificing his Yom Kippur to save another Jew -- already fulfilled the requirements of Yom Kippur; he doesn't need it. As far as he's concerned, he has reached the peak -- Simchas Torah. It's not a mistake; for this Jew, the service of Yom Kippur was superfluous. He already achieved everything that one has to achieve on Yom Kippur without going through the motions that we all need to go through. So, when he got up to dance, he was doing the right thing. He simply reached Simchas Torah ahead of everyone else."


This story teaches us an important lesson. A person might say, "What's so special about dancing on Simchas Torah? I mean, everyone can dance. What's so holy about singing and jumping?" But we see that it's not true: if Yom Kippur would be holier than Simchas Torah, then Yom Kippur would come last. The fact that Simchas Torah is last means that despite what appearances may be, the dancing on Simchas Torah is even greater, and higher, and holier than the fasting on Yom Kippur and the davening of Rosh HaShanah.

Notes:

  1. (Back to text) Some of the festivals are celebrated for one day in Israel and for two days in the Diaspora.
  2. (Back to text) The Five Books of Moses are divided into 53 sections (parshas). One section is read each week (sometimes two), so that the entire Torah is completed in a year.
  3. (Back to text) Devarim 28:47.
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