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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. It contains a fixed number of words and letters encompassing immeasurable wisdom. It is unfathomable by our finite minds, yet the unlimited soul, the part of the Divine within every single one of us, the G-dly flame, is one with it.
One might suggest 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.
But then, our celebrations would be limited. Our joy would be lacking. Many could not participate due to lack of basic Hebrew reading skills. Others, though proficient in Hebrew, 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.
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 appreciating such celebrations generates the potential to appreciate happiness in all things, throughout the entire year.
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 Festival of Sukkot is called "the time of our rejoicing." It is a time of joy and happiness for every single member of the Jewish people.
Jews are called Tzivot Hashem, the Army of G-d, and every Jew without exception is a soldier in this army. Moreover, the mitzva of sukka is particularly expressive of this military theme.
Every army, when it goes out to wage war, must set up temporary barracks for its soldiers; bunkers or tents in which the soldiers live for the duration of the conflict. The Jewish people, the Army of G-d, also lived in temporary dwellings (sukkot) when they left Egypt, which is why we are commanded to dwell in booths during the holiday of Sukkot. We erect our sukkot with enthusiasm and pride, for these booths express our membership in G-d's Army.
When a triumphant army returns home to its native land, it is customary to hold a gala parade in celebration of its victory. The army proudly displays the weaponry that was utilized in battle.
On Sukkot, the Jewish people, having vanquished the yetzer hara (evil inclination) through the service of teshuva during the Ten Days of Repentance and on Yom Kippur, also makes a public show of its victory. But the "weapons" we put on exhibit for the world to see are the Four Species: The etrog is our "hand grenade"; the lulav our "rifle"; and the hadas (myrtle) is our "bayonet."
Why do we hold a "victory parade" on Sukkot with the Four Species? Because we are sure that G-d has accepted our repentance and forgiven all our sins. We observe this mitzva with the greatest joy - and precisely in the sukka - for it symbolizes the "military bunker" of G-d's Army.
The analogy, however, is not exact, for the "weaponry" of the Jewish people (the Four Species and the other mitzvot associated with Sukkot) is quite different from the weaponry of a conventional army.
Conventional arms are inherently lethal, designed to kill people and spread death and destruction. By contrast, in the war against the yetzer hara, when a Jew defeats his evil inclination and refuses to obey its voice, the yetzer hara itself rejoices! The function of the evil inclination is not to cause the Jew to fail; its intention is to merely tempt him to transgress, thereby revealing the Jew's inner strengths and powers when he stands strong and does not give in.
Thus the mitzva of the Four Species, performed with true joy and enthusiasm, helps us in our larger battle against the evil inclination and assists in its ultimate defeat. The Jew will then be able to serve G-d without impediment, devote himself totally to the study of Torah, and perform all of G-d's commandments with joy.
Adapted from Hitva'aduyot 5744, Vol. 1
AN ACT OF FAITH
by Steve Levin
The parchment is rough and dry to the touch, a calf hide sanded to near transparency. The carbon-based ink is a depthless glossy black, applied by goose quill to form the 304,805 letters contained in Judaism's most revered physical and spiritual possession: the Torah.
Scrolled around two wooden posts, covered with a white velvet mantle and capped with a sterling silver crown, this Torah -Pittsburgh's newest Torah - weighs only 12 pounds, yet is heavy with the history of eons.
My wife, Bracha, and I had commissioned the writing of that Torah. Bracha, our son Shmuel Yehuda, and I stood in the middle of a Squirrel Hill street on a recent Sunday afternoon with the Torah under a large chupa, or wedding canopy, surrounded by our families and 150 friends singing while black-hatted Hasidim danced in the street, and a juggler tossed pins of fire. I was amazed not only that after four years of work and planning the dedication day had finally arrived but also that such a singular accomplishment could unite the disparate Jews there - observant and secular, women and men, knowledgeable and curious - in a celebration of faith.
We called this project the Unity Torah because we had either visited or contacted all of Pittsburgh's synagogues, asking them to participate as a way to transcend the divisions that exist today among the branches of Judaism.
All events took place at the Lubavitch Center, a community synagogue. Early on, we decided that the Torah should remain there because of the education and benefits our son has received as a student at the Lubavitch Yeshiva.
The very idea of creating a Torah is fraught with difficulties and expense, and it's an incredibly humbling undertaking to bring a new one into the world. The Torah is Judaism, the bedrock on which more than 3,300 years of history and culture have been built.
At the time my wife conceived the idea four years ago, it was during the festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the Jews receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. I managed a wimpy noncommittal "Really?" figuring that such a huge undertaking would naturally fall victim to time, expense and the day-to-day attrition of life.
But a year later we announced the project at our son Shmuel Yehuda's bar mitzva, and said it would be written to honor him and both our sets of parents' 45th wedding anniversaries.
We looked at writing samples from a few Israeli and New York sofrim (scribes), and compared prices. Through a series of events that are best described as hashgocha protis, or divine providence, I found Rabbi Eliezer Zirkind.
Rabbi Zirkind, 68, is one in a long line of Lubavitch rabbis. His stern visage is belied by his self-depricating humor and vast knowledge of subjects ranging from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the laws of shechita, or kosher butchering.
My wife and I had talked often of the completion ceremony, or siyum, the parade and the celebratory meal that followed. Event planning is its own science. On top of that, a siyum for a sefer Torah must have a level of kedusha, or holiness, in every aspect.
Planning is something Bracha does extraordinarily well. When we lived in Texas, part of her business was event planning, including tablescaping, which is designing food elements on tables much as artists use paint on a canvas. Her credits included movies, print and TV ads, and restaurants.
We had no way of knowing how many people would show up, but we planned a festive meal that would accommodate 250 adults and 75 children.
Before there was any eating, the Torah needed to be finished. Zirkind had not written the final 90 letters so that one by one, beginning with our parents, siblings and cousins, people could stand beside him while he inked a letter for each of them.
The last word of the Torah is "Israel," which, in Hebrew, has five letters. Zirkind outlined them so that five people could fill them in. Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of Yeshiva Schools, wrote the first letter, a yud. I took the pen for the second letter, a shin. Gingerly dipping the quill into the ink, I scratched it inside the outline. The sound of quill on parchment was audible, like scraping a fingernail against a piece of rough fabric, yet the sensation I had was physically awesome. The ink seemed to leap from the quill, grabbing the parchment and drying almost immediately.
The last letter of the Torah is a lamed. Together with the first letter of the Torah, a beis, they spell lev, or heart, the idea being that the entire Torah should be kept close by one's heart in all endeavors. Writing a letter in a sefer Torah - or, as is the more common case these days, buying a letter - is considered as if one writes an entire Torah himself. The final letter is the greatest honor of all. My wife, through whose dedication and hard work the Unity Torah became a reality, took the lamed, standing close by Zirkind while the last drops of ink dried.
At the ensuing parade, the energy was palpable. Much like the celebration after a wedding, this was the spiritual wedding of a new Torah to its congregation. As we were about to re-enter the synagogue, its other five Torahs were brought out to welcome the new arrival.
Inside, for nearly an hour, similar to the Jewish celebration of Simchat Torah, when Jews dance around the synagogue with the Torah, people danced and jumped and twirled to the music-some on each other's shoulders-stopping only to hear the hakafot prayers read.
After all the Torahs were returned to the ark, there was more dancing and more celebrating, and it went on for hours. More than 400 adults and children had participated.
Even as we cleaned up the remnants of the celebration, there remained a real sense of exhilaration. The arrival of the Torah had been a unique birth. We look forward to growing with it.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where Steve Levin is a staff writer.
The Lubavitch Youth Organization provides public Sukkot in three key locations in New York City: The International Sukka at the U.N. - First Ave. and 43rd St.; the Garment Center Sukka in Herald Square across from Macy's; The Wall Street Area Sukka in Battery Park - at State Street and Battery Place. The Sukkot will be open during the intermediary days of the holiday, Sept. 27 - Oct. 1. For hours the sukkot will be open call (718) 778-6000. To find out about public Sukkot in your area call your local Chabad-Lubavitch Center.
This issue of L'Chaim is for Sukkot/Simchat Torah. The next issue (#588) is for Tishrei 28/Oct. 8 - the Torah portion of Bereshit.
Nov. 8, 1948
You are no doubt aware of the custom of Hakofos [encircling the lecturn seven times with the Torah scrolls] which takes place on Simchas Torah. This Festival of Rejoicing with the Torah appropriately winds up the period of solemn days and festivals of the month of Tishrei. It is an inspiring demonstration of our love and loyalty to G-d, showing that we accept the Torah not as a compulsorily imposed upon us code, but as G-d's greatest gift to man which we accept with joy.
The Hakofos begin with a recital of "Ato-horeiso" - selected verses from the Scriptures which are recited individually. The recital of a verse is regarded as an honor and privilege and great Zechus [privilege].
The Hakofos of the Morning Service of Simchas Torah, taking place with the personal participation of the Lubavitcher Rabbi, are dedicated to the Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch. On this occasion the MLC honors some of its more prominent friends, whether present or not, with participation in a verse recited by the Lubavitcher Rabbi himself. This is in accordance with the rule laid down by our Sages that "benefits may be bestowed upon a person even when he is not aware of them at the time."
We are pleased to inform you that we have accorded you this privilege, and may it open new channels of goodness and happiness from the Almighty to you and yours.
With kind regards and best wishes,
Very sincerely yours,
Rabbi Mendel Schneerson
Chairman, Executive Committee
* * *
12th of Tishrei, 5734
It was gratifying to read your inspiring letter of Oct. 3. May G-d grant that you should with joy carry to fruition the program of Torah education which you have made your goal - in the fullest measure and more. I believe I had occasion to quote to you my father-in-law of saintly memory to the effect that when a Jew resolves to do a good thing, the One Above immediately opens for him additional channels if necessary, to accomplish it even better than expected.
Needless to say, in light of what is happening at this moment in our Holy Land, involving our people everywhere, it is impossible to write a letter at this time without making reference to it. I will only say here that these events once again demonstrate, and will do so conclusively in the coming days, what has been emphasized in my letter of the 6th of Tishrei, namely, that our Jewish people have been given by G-d unlimited capacities - if these are linked with the age-old Prophetic principle, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says G-d."
At first glance, this seems somewhat at variance with the Torah's own principle that a Jew must do everything possible in the natural order, and not rely entirely on miracles. Yet it is an obvious truism and a matter of common experience that even in material aspects, when matching physical forces, it is not brute strength, sheer numbers, or the weight of military hardware that is the decisive factor but rather the quality of the combatants and the sophistication of their methods. The character of the human element, its morale, motivation, selfless dedication, and similar inspired qualities easily outweigh the purely physical disadvantages.
And if this is so in the realm of the physical, surely the spiritual capacities of the Jew - and a substantial part of every Jew's life is after all in the realm of the spirit - are inestimable. There is no need to elaborate to you on the above.
May G-d grant that we should all merit soon to see the fulfillment of the Divine promise that "all the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d," when, as a matter of course, "Nation will not lift up a sword unto nation," which will come to pass with the coming of our righteous Moshiach, bringing us the true Geulo [Redemption].
With warm regards and blessing for a happy Yom Tov,
In memory of Yosef Yitzchak ben Shlomo Shneur Zalman, yblc't
16 Tishrei 5760
Positive mitzva 108: law of the water of sprinkling
By this injunction (contained in Num. 19:9-21) we are commanded to observe the regulations of the water of sprinkling, which under certain conditions causes an unclean person to become clean, and under other conditions causes a clean person to become unclean.
When it comes to joy, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are the high point of the entire month of Tishrei. In fact, our Sages tell us that Simchat Torah is the "reservoir" from which we draw our happiness throughout the rest of the year.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that on Simchat Torah we read the Torah portion of Zot Habracha, which ends with the passing of Moses. Similarly, the haftora begins with the words "And it was after the death of Moses, the servant of G-d."
A question is asked: Why must we be reminded of such a sad topic on a day that's supposed to be the epitome of happiness?
In order to answer it, let's take a deeper look at Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which cap off the holiday season, are the "stepping-stones" that connect Tishrei to our regular, post-Yom Tov lives. It isn't difficult to feel a sense of spiritual elevation on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; the challenge is to feel the same way six months later, in the midst of our mundane activities. Simchat Torah allows us to extend the spiritual power of Tishrei to all aspects of our lives, regardless of the date on the calendar.
Moses' passing was also a "bridge" of sorts for the Jewish people. While Moses was alive the Jews witnessed open miracles; after his passing, their daily lives became less remarkable, and G-d's miracles became increasingly concealed. Nonetheless, it is precisely the post-Moses era for which the world was created, as it is our job to uncover the G-dliness that exists within creation.
Thus in essence, Simchat Torah and the Torah portion we read on it share a common theme, for they both give us the strength to counter G-d's concealment, ultimately revealing the light of Redemption.
In the same way that the sukka is our temporary dwelling during Sukkot, so too should a person view his sojourn in this world as only temporary. For in truth, the soul's descent into a physical body is only for a specified, limited time. "In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days" alludes to the seven midot (emotions or character traits) that must be refined and purified in the course of our "70-year" life-span. (Sefer HaMaamarim Kuntresim)
The Hebrew word sukka is an acronym for "someich ve'ozer kol hanoflim - [He] supports and assists all who fall." When a Jew fulfills the mitzva of sukka, G-d helps him in all he does and holds him by the hand. (Bnei Yissaschar)
Altering the vowels slightly, the letters of the word lulav, lamed-vav-lamed-veit, can also be read "lu lev" - "would that the heart." A Jew must be of "one heart," directed solely toward G-d and things that are holy. Indeed, G-d is described as "the rock of my heart," meaning that the central, inner core of one's existence should consist only of G-d. (Likutei Torah)
The request of a righteous individual
The Sanzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, was imprisoned in a German labor camp that was liberated by the Allies at the express command of General Eisenhower. During the war, he had lost his wife and eleven children. The Rebbe asked to meet with the general.
As the meeting came to a close, Eisenhower asked him, "Do you have a request to make of me?"
"Being that it is nearly the Jewish fesitval of Sukkot," the Rebbe replied, "I would appreciate it if you could find an etrog for me."
General Eisenhower was so impressed by the tzadik that he sent a plane to Italy to procure one.
"Run away!" the woman begged her husband. "Go before it's too late!"
"I can't leave," Reb Michael answered. "It wouldn't be right to walk away and abandon everyone."
"But you must!" she insisted. "They're already making inquiries. Pretty soon they'll find you. And what will happen then?" The woman burst into tears.
"All right," Reb Michael consoled her. "Let me tie up a few loose ends..."
The couple had been having the same conversation quite frequently of late. It was the height of the Communist regime in Russia, and all religious activity was strictly forbidden. Numerous rabbis had already been exiled to Siberia, and even worse. Nonetheless, there were a handful of brave individuals here and there who struggled to keep the embers of Judaism alive. Risking their lives they taught Torah to Jewish children, organized communal prayer, and saw to it that kosher meat was available. They built and maintained ritual baths, and kept their brethren supplied with prayer books, prayer shawls and tefillin. Reb Michael, a Chasid, was one of these courageous and defiant Jews.
Reb Michael didn't fool himself; he recognized the danger he placed himself in, and faced it willingly. But recently the risk was intensifying. Rumor had it that his activities were under close observation by the KGB, and that a thick file had been accumulated. It was only a matter of time before Reb Michael was arrested and imprisoned.
Every day the Chasid's wife urged him to flee, and every day Reb Michael pushed off his departure for another reason. It was the end of the year, almost time for the High Holidays. Reb Michael was the only Jew in town who could organize a clandestine minyan. Reluctantly, Reb Michael's wife agreed that he should stay until after Rosh Hashana.
Rosh Hashana came and went. Now it was almost Yom Kippur. "How can I leave these Jews without a minyan for Yom Kippur?" Reb Michael tried to convince his wife.
"All right," she gave in. "But as soon as Yom Kippur ends, you're leaving!"
After Yom Kippur, Reb Michael changed his mind yet again. For years he had been building a tiny sukka in his backyard, no more than four cubits by four cubits. The whole thing was cleverly concealed with branches and leaves. On the night of Sukkot, many of the area's Jews would come and make Kiddush and eat a small piece of challa before rushing home. Some even returned on the first and second day of Yom Tov to eat their meals there. "I can't very well leave them without a sukka..." Reb Michael told his wife.
When she realized he intended to stay until after Sukkot she almost fainted from fear. But her husband would not budge. There was no way he was leaving.
The night of Sukkot arrived. At the makeshift synagogue the congregants wished each other a quiet "Good Yom Tov," then left. As planned, each person took a different route through the city, arriving at Reb Michael's sukka at staggered hours throughout the evening. Great care had been taken so that not even two people would be present in the sukka at the same time. One after the other they snuck in, made Kiddush on the wine, washed their hands, ate a piece of challa and departed hastily.
The first two days of Sukkot were uneventful. The next morning Reb Michael informed his friends that the time had come for him to leave. If previously there was insufficient evidence of his "crimes," his activities of the past few weeks/ had surely provided it. Building a sukka for the entire Jewish community was icing on the cake.
It was the middle of the night when Reb Michael returned from the gathering his friends had made in his honor. Deciding on a late night snack, he took some food and went out to the sukka. Pretty soon he was lost in thought.
The loud knocking on his front door broke his reverie. Reb Michael jumped up and started in the direction of his house. But what he heard next stopped him in his tracks. "Open up! Police!" a harsh voice demanded.
Reb Michael's brain was working overtime. Every second was crucial. But what to do? He heard the police announce that they had come to arrest him, and his wife's reply that she hadn't seen him in ages. Very well, they told her brusquely, they would search the house for themselves.
Now was his only chance. Stealthily, his heart beating wildly, Reb Michael tip-toed around the house. Reaching the street, he broke into a run in the direction of the train station. In the meantime, his wife's only prayer was that her husband not arrive home in the middle of the search.
For several days she was unaware of his whereabouts. Then a letter arrived from her brother who lived several thousand kilometers away, informing her of a guest who had come to see him, and noting the guest's robust health...
In truth, Reb Michael had the merit of many mitzvot to protect him. But in his heart, Reb Michael knew it was the sukka he had built that was his salvation.
One can appreciate that the nature of the Jewish people's service during Simchat Torah and its extension throughout the year is one that is permeated with the ideal of Redemption and Moshiach. This means, that the manner in which a Jew conducts his daily activities, even as we stand in exile immediately before the Redemption is a sampling of and analogous to the way of life and conduct that will occur in the actual Messianic Age. (The Rebbe, Simchat Torah 5752-1991)