Torah Thoughts on Simchat Torah 5781
by Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
We are celebrating the festival of Sukkot (literally, “huts”). Apart from having our meals in the Sukkah, the other notable tradition of this holiday is to take four species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas and Aravah), put them together, and say the corresponding blessing each day of the festival (not on Shabbat, though).
There are many proposals that try to explain what this ritual means. Some say that taking the four species each day provides joy and also a necessary approach to nature. Others say that the movements we do with the Lulav (the “shaking”) express a hope and a prayer for the necessary rains, as well as a wish to avoid damaging winds. There are many midrashim that explain how the four species represent different kinds of individuals among the Jewish people (those who study Torah, or not; those who perform good deeds, or not), or different parts of the human body. As it happens with other symbols and rituals, the Jewish tradition provides us with multiple interpretations.
As I wrote above, one of the best-known explanations about the ritual of the four species is that each of the species represents a different type of person. We learn from this explanation that each person is important and unique. If one of the four species were missing, we would not be able to fulfill the commandment of taking the Lulav. Moreover, we cannot say the blessing if one of the four species is missing. In the same way, we could say that we have no blessing in life unless all the different types of people are present. Diversity is necessary and it is a blessing too. What a beautiful message to keep in mind for these times!
The last day of the festival (or, formally, the day after Sh’mini Atzeret) is a festival itself, called Simchat Torah, the joy of Torah. On this day we end, and immediately resume, the annual ritual reading of the Torah. How do we celebrate it? We dance and sing with the Torah scrolls. After a week of bringing together the four species, on Simchat Torah we literally get together ourselves. Like my colleague Rabbi Ariel Kleiner wrote in regard to being together and united, after a week of practicing the “theory,” we get a day of the “real thing.”
No doubt about it, this year of pandemic and social distancing we will not be able to dance and get together. Well, perhaps this time we can go from “theory” to “practice” in a different way. Since the idea is to embrace diversity, from this Simchat Torah on, you could try to practice it in a healthy and safe way. For example, you can look for and read interpretations and opinions of social, political, or religious texts that are not necessarily aligned with your thoughts. We do this in Judaism every time we study Torah! In addition, you can talk (phone call, Zoom) with people who usually think differently than you do. And it does not have to be always about politics: there are so many interesting things in this world to discuss and learn about!
In this time of hyperpolarization (not only in America) we Jews can contribute a lot to having a healthier society by embracing diversity, by being respectful of other people’s points of view, by respectfully listening to people who we don’t agree with, and by trying to distinguish ideas from people. Our tradition has carried this trend for thousands of years, and this is an excellent moment to put it in practice. May this year’s unusual Simchat Torah be an opportunity for us to think about people, ideas, opinions, and respectful debate. It is so much needed nowadays!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!