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The flame dances, leaps, flickers, gracefully waving its fiery body. It moves from side to side. It waxes and wanes, without a moment's rest, without an instant of inactivity. The flame is the prima ballerina in a ballet orchestrated specially for her.
The Jewish soul is a flame. And when it wants to express itself, when it aches to rise above limitations, casting aside all restrictions, it too dances.
And this is why we Jews dance on the holiday of Simchat Torah. Little children with their multicolored, paper flags and miniature Torahs, adults with the handwritten scrolls of parchment. Scholars and beginners, young and old.
We dance with the Torah, a contradiction of sorts. For it is a tangible entity, yet it is fully perceived only by our imperceptible souls. It contains a fixed number of words and letters encompassing immeasurable wisdom. It is unfathomable by our finite minds, yet our unlimited souls, the part of the Divine within every single one of us, the G-dly flame, is one with it.
One might think that the way to celebrate with and rejoice over completing the Torah at this time of year would be to open it up and study it. To unroll the parchment and attempt to unravel the mysteries therein.
But then, our celebrations would be limited. Our joy would be lacking. For many could not participate from lack of basic Hebrew reading skills. Others, though knowing the holy tongue, lack a knowledge of the foundations of Judaism. The child would be confined by his undeveloped cognitive skills. The scholar's prominence in this area would be conspicuous. There would be no sense of the intrinsic equality of every single Jew.
And so, we dance. For some it is just a rhythmic sway. For others it is a kick-up-your-heels dance. For all, it is the expression of the part of us that transcends all limitations and definitions.
Dancing, specifically the kind of dancing that we do on Simchat Torah, is unique because it creates an atmosphere, an atmosphere of joy, excitement, carefree abandon from the worries of our day-to-day existence. It is difficult, no, nearly impossible, to see a mass of people swirling round and round without getting intoxicated with the exuberant mood.
And so, on Simchat Torah we dance. As equals we dance. As equals we rejoice with the magnificent gift of the Torah. Some know more, some know less, but when we dance we are equal.
The dancing on Simchat Torah is the culmination of days of joyous festivity during special celebrations on each night of Sukkot which are as ancient as the Holy Temple itself. The joy increases daily, from the first day of Sukkot until the end of Simchat Torah. And since our Sages tell us that "happiness breaks down barriers," the happiness at the celebrations can and should extend beyond all limits. For, then, the happiness will serve as a source of happiness for the entire year to come. And seeing and participating in such celebrations generates the potential to appreciate happiness in all things, throughout the entire year.
The last day of the festival of Sukkot is Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing of the Torah. On this day we conclude the yearly cycle of the Torah reading by finishing the last portion of the Book of Deuteronomy and begin again with the first chapter of Genesis. But why was this particular day chosen to celebrate our joy in the Torah?
The answer lies in Simchat Torah's close relationship with Yom Kippur, which precedes Sukkot by five days. One explanation of why this holiday is observed as a celebration of Torah has to do with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. On Shavuot, when the Torah was revealed, G-d gave Moses the first set of tablets. These Moses broke after seeing the Golden Calf which the Jews had fashioned. Moses ascended Mount Sinai for a second forty-day period, begging G-d's forgiveness for the Jewish people. After a third-forty day period, Moses descended with the second set of tablets. These second tablets were, in certain respects, superior to the first, and are called "a double portion of blessing."
Another reason we rejoice on this day is because of the basic difference between Shavuot--the holiday which commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai--and Simchat Torah. On Shavuot, the Torah was presented to mankind as a gift, whereas on Simchat Torah the joy we feel comes, to a certain extent, from the toil and effort we invested in living and learning Torah during the previous year.
Human nature is such that it is impossible to feel pure and unadulterated joy over something which is received without having expended any effort. Food which a person receives as a charitable donation is called the "bread of shame," and brings with it only incomplete satisfaction. A person is truly happy only when his success and wealth are achieved as the fruits of his own labor. This is why, on Shavuot, our rejoicing in the Torah is not complete, for on that day G-d gave us His gift without any effort on our part. Our unlimited joy in G-d's Torah is reserved for Simchat Torah, the culmination of an entire year's learning and study.
Unlike the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments, the second set were fashioned by Moses and not by G-d, although the letters were again written by the Divine hand. This underscores the power man has been given to become an active and willing partner in G-d's plan for the universe.
Furthermore, when the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews for the first time, they were all considered to be tzadikim, or righteous people. They stood at Mount Sinai in unprecedented unity, and were free of sin. The second time around, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish people had already committed the sin of the Golden Calf, and were now baalei teshuva--they had returned to the right path after their transgression. Their joy in G-d's Torah on that day was even greater than on Shavuot, because a person who has sinned and does teshuva is on an even higher level than one who has never sinned, and the closeness to G-d which comes after one has temporarily strayed is therefore that much more precious.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
FOR THE LOVE OF TORAH
Some of us are fortunate to know who we are at a young age, like my six-year-old son. From about the age of three he began telling me that he wanted to be a sofer, a scribe.
Maybe it all started when he began accompanying his father to shul. His father is the gabbai [overseer] at our community's small, warm Chabad House and my son would stand right next to him during the entire Torah service, staring at the black letters on the cream-colored parchment. Since then, he has been fascinated, even obsessed, by the actual physical scroll of the Torah, and all of its ornamentation, and the aron (ark) that houses it. These things dominate his thoughts and imagination. For two and a half years now he has been manipulating, molding, and shaping almost anything he could get his hands on into a Torah scroll. Paper, cardboard, twigs, aluminum foil, even wet tissues and napkins become the raw material for his Torahs.
A few years ago my son began making up stories, and sometimes before he went to bed he would tell me one of them. Or often he would tell them at the Shabbat table, as part of his contribution to the discussion.
His stories always began the same. "Once upon a time there was a family of Torahs who lived in an aron." Usually there were adventures with the Torahs moving from shul to shul or having to leave their old shul. Eventually, he created a place called Torah Land where all the Torahs wanted to be, and his stories would be the adventures of how the Torahs got there.
My son is a motivated artist, and I was amazed when I first saw him, all on his own, take an object and place it in front of him while he tried to copy it on paper with his marker. I noticed when he first began making drawings that looked realistic, there was always an aron with one or more Torahs in it somewhere in the picture and some letters floating around.
I believe my son's desire to be a sofer is not the whim of a small child, but is prompted by something deep inside him. When he was about three, I saw him one day stride purposefully to one of our many bookcases and carefully, as if knowingly, reach for a book. It was a skinny book, not one that stood out on the shelf in any way, and when he took it down, I saw it was a "how to" book on writing a Torah scroll. He sat on the couch a long time turning the pages, staring long at each letter, fingering the black print. Then he took a piece of paper and a marker and began to attempt the letters. No one told him; no one showed him the book.
After that, he did this almost every day. And soon he was happy to take any available Hebrew book and use it as a model for his letters. He would sit quietly for hours, always prompted to start all on his own. I never asked him to.
His preschool teacher, when he was four, once told me this: They had in the school room a set of the Hebrew alphabet in colored felt pasted on black felt stretching low across one wall. She said my son would go over to the felt letters and touch them, carefully running his hand all over a particular letter. Then he would try to draw it. It was as if he were trying to access some old memory of the shapes of the letters, as if it were there in his hands all along, and now he wished only to spill it out on paper.
I once read him a true story about a scribe which explained how a Torah is written. The book had many photographs. My son was especially excited by the book, and would stare at the photographs for hours. In his mind it was a very special, almost sacred book, to be treated with reverence.
He was especially mesmerized by the picture of the scribe and his family, and would ask me a lot of questions about it. Was he thinking "Is this how it will be for me?" In the book, the scribe says that he also knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a scribe, but it wasn't until the age of 17 that he found a teacher.
When my son was five years old, we took a trip to Crown Heights and I arranged for him to meet with the sofer from the book. The sofer was incredibly gracious and gave generously of his precious time to meet my son and talk to him about the basics of safrut--Jewish scribal art. He allowed him to practice a little and sent him home with some parchment, ink, and a quill to practice.
At home, a week later, my son learned that writing with a quill and ink was not going to be as easy as it might have looked. The ink smooshed all over everything, yet here and there among the smooshy letters would be one that would stand out as undeniably well done.
The funny thing in all of this, is that my husband is a mohel. My son has accompanied him occasionally, and always enjoys himself. Yet he has never once said that he would like to be a mohel like his father.
Yes, some of us are fortunate enough to know from a young age who we are and what our mission is. The rest of us usually take a lifetime to figure it out.
718 CHERNOBYL CHILDREN
This past month an additional 120 children from the Chernobyl region arrived in Israel. They join 598 children being treated at a facility in Kfar Chabad specially created to deal with their unique medical needs. By the end of 1993 the Chabad Children of Chernobyl relief program plans to bring another 1,000 children to the facility. Sixty percent of the children have already been reunited with their parents who, with the help of Chabad, moved to Israel. For more info about Children of Chernobyl contact the U.S. office at P.O. Box 218, Mequon, WI 53092.
Multifaceted holiday programs for Jewish inmates were organized by the Aleph Institute based in Bal Harbor, Florida. A fourteen-day furlough, which included Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, took place in Miami Beach for a select group of Jewish prisoners. Participants from all over the U.S. lived and learned Judaism. Aleph also sent prisoners shofars, holiday prayer books, holiday guides, honey, taleisim, and lulav and etrog sets. Their newly produced video and audio cassettes teaching how to observe the High Holidays were sent to 100 prisoners and dozens of Jews living in small communities. For more info about Aleph, contact them at 9401 Collins Ave. #314, Surfside, FL 33154, (305) 864-5553.
JOY, JOY, & MORE JOY
On each night of Sukkot this past year, and once during the daytime specially for the children, the Rebbe, shlita, spoke briefly to the thousands and thousands of people gathered in "770" to spend the holidays with the him. The Rebbe emphasized and reemphasized the importance of "simcha"--joy, in our celebrations of Sukkot and the imminence of Moshiach's arrival. What follows are just a few, brief quotes from the Rebbe's discourses of those days.
The first night of Sukkot: Sukkot is referred to as Chag HaAsif, the Harvest Festival. This name also relates to the Jews' gathering together with love of one another. Such gatherings precipitate the ultimate gathering of the Jewish people which will take place at the time of the Redemption. For when division and strife, the causes of the exile, are nullified, the exile itself, the effect, will also be nullified.
Second night: "The deed is most essential." The deed we are concerned with now is increasing our celebration, expanding our rejoicing beyond the level of the previous day. In general, "one must always advance in regard to holy matters." Particularly when happiness is involved and there are new people participating, this should result in increased joy.
Fourth day: These celebrations should be so great that "we did not taste sleep"; the intensity of these celebrations should be so powerful that the thought of sleep should not even occur to us. Each one of us can see this in his own life. When a person's happiness is very great, it permeates every aspect of his conduct and prevents him from sleeping. Such happiness was experienced by the Jews in the Holy Temple and will be experienced again during the Era of the Redemption when the entire Jewish people will gather in the Holy Temple. The knowledge of this forthcoming celebration should intensify our celebrations at present. This is particularly true, since Sukkot is the third festival (when counting from Passover), and the Torah mentions happiness in connection with it three times. This should prompt joyous celebrations and should motivate everyone to celebrate in a proper manner and inspire others to do the same. This, in turn, will prepare us for the ultimate celebration in the Era of the Redemption, an eternal celebration that will encompass the entire Jewish people, beginning with Jewish children.
Fifth night: The bonds of love between the Jews receive greater emphasis at times of happiness, for "happiness breaks down barriers." Surely, it breaks down the barriers an individual places around himself, e.g., "this is not appropriate for my honor" and the like.
Seventh night-Hoshana Rabba: Tonight should be associated with increased joy, for as is the custom in regard to wedding festivities, a celebration is connected with "a new face." In the present context, every individual is granted a "new face" so that he can add to and enhance his celebration of Sukkot. This potential is granted to every individual. In regard to the wedding celebrations, it is sufficient that only a single, new person attend, i.e., it is only necessary that the rejoicing be "new" for a single individual. In contrast, in the celebrations of Sukkot, every Jew is granted the potential to celebrate with renewed joy each night. He need not merely watch as another person celebrates with his entire being; he can celebrate in such a manner himself.
Eve of Simchat Torah: The revelation at the giving of the Torah facilitates our service in preparing the world for the Future Redemption. Since, as the Tanya explains, the revelation of the giving of the Torah is reflected in the revelation of the Era of the Redemption. And since that revelation was experienced previously, it will be easier to experience revelation a second time.
However, there will be a difference between the revelation at Mount Sinai and the revelation in the Era of the Redemption, for in the realm of holiness, there is no concept of mere repetition. Similarly, in the Era of the Redemption itself, there will be many different levels of revelation.
What is "Chol HaMoed"?
Chol HaMoed are the intermediate days of the holidays--specifically Sukkot and Passover. In Sukkot this means the five days (outside of Israel) which fall between the first day of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Although work is permissible during this time, it should be limited to those tasks necessary for the holiday or without which we would incur monetary loss. On these days we dress in our finest clothes, eat sumptuous, festive meals, and wish each other a "good moed." It is forbidden to cut the hair, and tefillin are not put on until after the holiday.
Last year, the Rebbe spoke about the status of education in the United States. "We find that in this country, there is a great emphasis placed on education." Therefore, the Rebbe suggested, the positive dimensions of those educational practices should be followed and applied to Jewish education in the realm of holiness. This is in keeping with our Sages' teaching that "When one comes to a city, one should follow its practices."
Jewish children are referred to with the name "Tzivos Hashem." When G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt, he took out the entire Jewish people, also referred to as Tzivos Hashem, "With our youth and with our elders...with our sons and with our daughters."
The redemption from Egypt began with the young, and so, too, the ultimate redemption from this exile will also begin with the children first.
Our Sages interpret the verse, "Do not touch My anointed--"mishichoi," as referring to young children who study Torah. The actual coming of Moshiach (the "anointed") and the Redemption will be hastened by the activities of the Jewish children who are called "mishichoi."
Some people explain that this title was given to Jewish children because it was customary to anoint them as part of their introduction to Torah study. Without minimizing this custom, it is safe to say that the ultimate reason why children are referred to as "mishichoi" is because Moshiach can be, in fact, intrinsically is, their only concern.
In the merit of the children, and in the merit of a renewed effort on the part of every single Jew to make sure that Jewish children have proper Jewish educations, may we merit the ultimate proper Jewish education when we will hear the teachings of the Torah straight from Moshiach himself.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
The gabbai (overseer) of the shul came up to the rebbe, Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch, and invited him to begin the hakafot by making the first circuit around the bima. But the Rebbe just shrugged and said, "I'm not ready yet."
The Rebbe then walked over to another member of the minyan who was a businessman and worked on commission. He asked him, "Tell me, how do you run your business?"
"It's easy," replied the merchant. "I bring in merchandise from the market in the big city and I offer it to the small retailers. To those who pay me for the goods I brought them before, I give more merchandise on credit."
Now, the word for credit is "hakafa," the same word that signifies the circuits made around the bima with the Torah scroll on Simchat Torah.
The Rebbe explicated to all those in the shul, "After we have paid G-d in cash--the varied kinds of divine service of the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret--then He will give us a new consignment of goods--blessings for the New Year--on credit. In full expectation of a successful `business deal' we will now begin the hakafot."
When Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was a young, newlywed, the elders of the synagogue honored him with the recitation of some of the verses during the Simchat Torah celebration.
Levi Yitzchak mounted the bima and took his tallit in hand, ready to put it on and begin the recitation, but instead, he laid the tallit down on a bench. He stopped and seemed to be deeply engaged in some thought, and then picked it up again. But no sooner had he retrieved the tallit, then he put it down. This he repeated several times while the congregation watched, perplexed.
When it seemed that he was finally about to begin, he shouted, "If you're a scholar, and a chasid also, then you recite the verses!" And he left the bima and returned to his seat.
The congregants were shocked; they couldn't imagine what was going on! The respected father-in-law of the young scholar was totally embarrassed, but he said nothing until the evening services ended. Then he approached his son-in-law, and trying to be as calm as possible, asked him what was the meaning of his bizarre behavior.
Levi Yitzhak replied, "I will tell you the real reason for my behavior. When I rose to the bima and took my tallit in my hand, ready to begin the verses, the Evil Inclination followed up behind me.
"He said that he wanted to recite the verses together with me! So I said to him, 'Who do you think you are to be honored like that?'
"And he replied sarcastically with his own question, 'And who are you?'
"I answered him, 'I am a learned scholar.'
"To which he replied, 'So am I.'
"And I answered him, 'If you're such a great scholar, then tell me, where did you study? I studied under, Rabbi X, Rabbi Y, and Rabbi Z.'
"He looked surprised, and said, 'I also studied with them. I was there together with you.'
"Then I retorted, 'But I am a chasid!'
"And he looked me straight in the eye and said, 'No more than I!'
"And with that I became angry at him. 'How could you be a chasid. I learned from chasidim, studied their habits and ways. I spent my time among them. But you, where were you?'
" 'Why, I was there together with you all that time. Whatever you learned I also learned.'
"And then I realized that I could never win the argument. He would go on arguing forever, wanting to stand on the bima with me and recite the holy verses alongside me. So I gave up. I put down my tallit, and I turned to him and said, 'If you are such a great scholar, and you are such a great chasid, then you stand here and recite the verses yourself!'"
Pilgrimage to Jerusalem
One of the miracles which occurred when the Jews made their required pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the three major holidays--Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot--was that although when they stood shoulder to shoulder inside the Temple it was so overcrowded one could barely move, when they prostrated themselves on the ground before G-d there was plenty of room for everyone.
The revelation of G-dliness was not only apparent when they bowed down, however. The Jews' standing together in complete unity and harmony was unparalleled anywhere else, yet when it came time for each individual to prostrate himself and serve G-d in his own unique way, there was plenty of room for each person's individuality.
Hoshana Rabba, which this year falls on Sunday, October 18, is the last day of Sukkot, and is considered to be the end of the Days of Awe which began on Rosh Hashana. Hoshana Rabba is therefore the culmination of the process of teshuva, or repentance, which characterizes the month of Tishrei. Special prayers are said in the synagogue on the night of Hoshana Rabba, and the entire Book of Psalms and Book of Deuteronomy are read. In the morning, while holding the Four Species, we circle the lectern where the Torah is read seven times. A bundle of five willow branches is then beaten five times on the ground, a tradition which dates back to the time of the Prophets and is based on the kabbala.
On Simchat Torah, all the advocating angels rush to the defense of the Jewish people and berate the Satan. "How can you accuse such a wonderful nation as the Jews of any wrongdoing!" they cry. "Just look at them--men, women and children, going to their synagogues to rejoice with the holy Torah!" Hour after hour the angels describe the joyful dancing and the love even the smallest Jewish children show for the Torah as they kiss the scrolls with their tiny mouths, until the Satan slinks away in shame...
(Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch)
G-d hates the exile, since He knows that in the exile the Jews are lacking--and indeed, He understands their lack better than the Jews themselves do. Even though a Jew knows of the ultimate state of the era of Redemption, since he lives within the confines of a physical body and the confines of this world, he cannot understand these concepts fully. Nevertheless, since a Jew knows that G-d hates the exile, he also hates the exile.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)