Four months after Simchat Torah became a day of profound tragedy, we need to reaffirm the premise to which that day is dedicated.
As a people of memory, that day will never again have the atmosphere of carefree joy that it may have had for us in the past. Yet the idea that it expresses – the celebration of Torah, of Divine knowledge and Jewish learning – has never been more essential. In the shadows of Simchat Torah 5784, we should consider what this day meant to the Soviet Jews who chose that one time of the year to come out in the tens of thousands and assert their Jewishness.
Elie Wiesel visited the Soviet Union in the fall of 1965 and then published “The Jews of Silence,” his personal report on Soviet Jewry.
“They came in droves. From near and far, from downtown and the suburbs, from the university and from the factories, from school dormitories and from the Komsomol club. They came in groups; they came alone. But once here, they became a single body, voicing a song of praise to the Jewish people and its will to live. How many were there? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? More. About thirty thousand. The crush was worse than it had been inside the synagogue. They filled the whole street, dancing and singing, dancing and singing. They seemed to hover in midair, Chagall-like, floating above the mass of shadows and colors below, above time, climbing a Jacob’s ladder that reached to the heavens if not higher. Tomorrow they would descend and scatter, disappear into the innermost parts of Moscow, not to be heard from for another year. But they would return and bring more with them. The line will never break.
… I went up to talk to her. Was she religious? Far from it; never had been. Her parents had been born after the Revolution, and even they had received an antireligious education. What did she know about the Jewish religion? That it was based on outdated values. And about the Jewish people? That it was made up of capitalists and swindlers. And the state of Israel? That it was aggressive, racist, and imperialist. Where had she learned this all from? From textbooks, government pamphlets, and the press. I asked her why she insisted on remaining Jewish. She hesitated, searching for the proper word, then smiled. “What does it matter what they think of us … it’s what we think that counts.”
If there was one day on the calendar that Soviet Jewry would come out of the shadows, it would be Simchat Torah, the day when Jews celebrate our knowledge and our values, what we know and believe. In the darkness of the Soviet’s twisted falsehoods and doublespeak, they came to celebrate Jewish truth.
Since the day we received the Torah, we have not just studied it and we don’t just observe it; we celebrate it. As our Parsha (Shemot 24:5) records, at Sinai we brought zevachim shelamim, offerings that provided meat for a feast in which we partook together with the intense experience of encountering G-d (24:11). Ramban explains that this was our way of celebrating the gift of Torah that we had just received and the way we would again celebrate the Torah when we would inscribe it upon stones upon our entry to the land of Israel (Devarim 27:7-8). The unanimous Talmudic agreement (Pesachim 68b) that we feast on Shavuot is grounded in this same concept, “as it is the day that G-d gave us the Torah.”
And we continue this fete of Torah in individual siyum celebrations when we reach milestones in our Torah study.
Today’s free world with its freedom of speech and free press has created its own twisted falsehoods and doublespeak, where a nation defending itself from an explicitly genocidal enemy is accused of genocide, an army lauded by military historians as taking “more measures to avoid needless civilian harm than virtually any other nation that’s fought an urban war” is lectured on humanitarianism and accused of war crimes, and a democratic state that includes its Arab citizens as voters, parliamentarians, judges, and surgeons, is called an apartheid state and commanded by the progressives to welcome the creation of a judenrein autocracy next door.
Simchat Torah was never more needed. “What does it matter what they think of us … it’s what we think that counts.” We must draw strength and hope by reminding ourselves of who we are, of the magnificent Torah values that guide our behavior in war and peace, of the light that we bring the world and the strength and care that we provide each other. We must celebrate Torah, replaying in our minds and on our lips the words – the value statements – we sing over and over again on Simchat Torah: Baruch hu elokeinu shebra’anu lichvodo v’hivdilanu min hato’im. Blessed is our G-d Who created us to bring Him honor, distinguishing us from those who are so lost and confused and gave us the Torah of truth. And we must pray – as we do each morning – that the love of Torah and celebration of its wisdom continue to grow and spread until it reaches every single Jew, man and woman, young and old.
“Hashem, we ask you to please make the Torah taste sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of your entire nation, the House of Israel.”