As Jews, we are accustomed to live in calendar confusion, oscillating between two major Jewish New Years (Tishrei/Nissan), two Judgment Days (Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur), [two Purims, two Pesachs ..]. It’s not so easy to explain it all. So here’s one more to add to the list.
Arguably, the greatest Jewish storyteller of all time, the Dubner Maggid, (Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, d. 1804) was once asked: Why do we have two Torah celebrations both Simchas Torah (the completion of the annual Torah cycle) and Shavuos (commemorating the Sinai revelation of the Torah)? Why not condense them into one grand Holiday? Characteristically – he responded with a story.
A childless King and Queen were desperate. After many years, they visited a sage – who conveyed a potent blessing with a cautionary clause. Shortly, the Queen would successfully bear a baby girl. No man outside the family may see her until her wedding day, lest she die. And so it was. Upon the Queen’s birth of a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the Princess – where she was raised in regal style with the finest array of female educators and advisers.
As the Princess came of age, the King encountered a serious technical difficulty in marrying off his daughter. Each nobleman in the King’s court was thrilled to accept the princess’s hand in marriage – until it was explained that the first date and the wedding would coincide. On the verge of despair, the King approached the final nobleman – who remarkably assented to marry without even a peek.
As the wedding approached, our heroic nobleman began to experience buyer’s remorse as his repressed bridal fears shook him profoundly. For better, but probably for worse, he was stuck. On that wedding day, the whole world came to dance, except for the anxiety stricken groom. As he peered underneath the veil, bracing for disaster, but inexplicably the princess was incredibly beautiful. A nagging nervousness persisted: “What’s the catch?” But none was coming. Everyday he unveiled yet another wondrous aspect of her personality. Not only was she stunning, she was also spunky, spirited, charming and deep.
Months later, the nobleman approached his new father in law, unabashedly admitting his delight in his bride, with but one disappointment; he had essentially missed out on the wedding. The King decided that a new party would be arranged. All the guests would be invited back but this time only one person, the Prince himself, would dance to express his absolute delight. And so it was.
Shavuos, explained the Dubner Maggid marks the Jew’s unshakable commitment to God’s wisdom and His Torah. Not knowing what was in the Torah, at Mt.Sinai, we proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma (We will perform the mitzvot and then we will understand them). That faith remained blind until the Jew was exposed to the sweetness of the Torah. Simchas Torah celebrates, through dedication to Torah Study, the Jew’s joy and ever expanding appreciation for the Torah’s pristine beauty and depth.
Is that not a metaphor for Jewish history? When we had nothing but faith – through our numerous dark spots, spanning from Babylonia through Rome to Medieval Europe and twentieth century Germany – the Jew always celebrated deep Torah study. It was the study halls of Babylonia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Lithuania and Poland that illuminated our blackest moments.
A simple question: nestled in what has been a relatively comfortable period for the Diaspora Jew, where is the 21st century Jew of the American Jewish community?
In May, 1964, Look Magazine ran a cover story on “The Vanishing American Jew”, predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in this country. Since then, Look magazine has vanished and we remain 5 million plus. All however is not rosy on the American Jewish front. Sub- zero replacement rates, an aging population and a 52% intermarriage rate do not bode well for the future of American Jewry.
When historians will wonder what happened, I believe they will reach the inescapable conclusion that many analysts of the classic 1990 National Jewish Population Survey have already reached: “Jewish Day School was…the only schooling that stands against the assimilatory process indicated by intermarriage and its related behaviors” (Elimor & Katz, 1993). In other words, only a consistent commitment to serious Torah will create the joy critical to ensure Jewish survival. Of course, these historians will have only been echoing the words of the sweet singer of Israel, King David who more than 2500 years ago penned in his Psalms the sentiment “Had the Torah not been my constant delight, long ago, I would have long since been lost.”
Amidst the wild craziness and the merriment (and the unfortunate alcohol) that often accompanies Simchat Torah, we may want to reflect upon the secret of our eternity.
After that reflection, I humbly submit, we might just do ourselves and our unborn grandchildren a favor and commit to attend one of the Torah classes that can be found year-round in your local synagogues or Kollels.
The Torah is quite a bride, and marriage, after all, is a beautiful thing.
Chag Sameach, Asher Brander
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.