Some aspects of Judaism are best appreciated when we move away from the cerebral and begin to enjoy them on an emotional level. Simchat Torah is a wonderful example. Think for a moment about what it is we do on this festival. We take our law book, our system of values and ethics, and we dance with the scrolls upon which they’re written. I don’t know of any other culture or people who so cherishes their law that they transform their scrolls into objects to dance with. And that is despite the lofty emphasis that is placed on the rigorous intellectual pursuits of its wisdom. How do we explain such a phenomenon?
I believe one approach can be found in an unusual midrash. The Talmud teaches (Tractate Shabbat 88b) that when the Torah was given to the Jewish people, each word that God spoke was accompanied with a beautiful fragrance, such that each scent filled the entire world.
What are we to make of these words of our sages? Perhaps we could suggest that prior to the rational understanding and intellectual recognition of the Torah, there was already an ephemeral sweetness that was appreciated by the senses. Sometimes, we are able to taste, hear or smell something that we have not yet fully appreciated. A person wearing perfume walks past us, and without even knowing the person, the fragrance is there – its scent gently lingers.
Clearly, when we enter into such territory, we have left the purely rational realm and have entered into something more emotional, more sensual. That, I believe, is what the midrash is trying to point out. Yes, the Torah is the word of God, and, yes, it contains laws, ethics, ways of behaviour and so much more. But before we get to the details, God wishes to hand us an object that is itself a thing of passion. He wants us to know that we are entering into a relationship built from strong loving foundations.
Anybody can “practise” the Torah, but are we able to love it? Can we take the Torah into the innermost chambers of our hearts and build a passionate fire that exudes all of the hallmarks of excitement and enthusiasm?
This Simchat Torah, when we come to the end of the Torah, we begin to roll it back to the beginning. In doing so, we restart our deep bond with its stories, lessons and values. But first, we dance. We hold the Torah close, and we celebrate. It is our “life and length of days,” says one prayer. And life has to be lived not only with laws, but with love and laugher, too.
The Talmud states that everything goes after the ending (Brachot 12a). The manner in which we conclude any journey in life affects how we will remember it and how it will affect our lives. We conclude the yearly reading of the Torah and the High Holiday season with great joy and celebwration. May this positive energy remain with us and carry over into the New Year. Shanah Tovah.
Rabbi Mark Fishman is assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Montreal.