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Home » Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah: Festival Of Transformation

Submitted by on October 12, 2014 – 12:28 pmNo Comment | 2,627 views

The Million Dollar Question

Everyone wonders about this. Why do we rejoice with the Torah at the end of the High Holiday season if the Torah was given in the late spring, on Shavuot? Should we not dance and rejoice over the Torah on the day it was given?

The obvious answer is that we rejoice with the Torah at this time because this is when we complete the last portion of the Torah. Each Shabbat a portion of the Torah is chanted during the service and the last portion is chanted on the last day of the High Holidays. But this only begs the question. Why do we complete our reading cycle at this time, wouldn’t it make more sense to complete it just before Shavuot and begin the new cycle just after Shavuot?

The answer to this question lies in its historical origin. The Jewish people could not celebrate with glee, when the Torah was given at Sinai because they were in a state of shock and awe. When G-d appeared on Sinai, the people were overwhelmed with the magnitude of His awesome greatness. When they heard the Commandments intoned by the Divine, their souls expired from the intensity of the experience. G-d sent angels to revive them, but one imagines that they were left shaken and weakened. This was no time for rejoicing.

Time had to pass to allow them to settle before they could appreciate or marvel over G-d’s exquisite gift. However, they never got that chance. The very next day, Moses climbed Mount Sinai and remained there for forty days. They couldn’t celebrate without Moses. When Moses finally returned with tablets in hand, they might have rejoiced, but we all know what happened then. Moses beheld the spectacle of the Golden Calf and shattered the tablets. This was a tragedy, not a time for celebration.

Two and a half months later, on the day of Yom Kippur, Moses secured a second set of tablets and atonement for the sin. Of course they couldn’t rejoice on the solemn day of Yom Kippur and following Yom Kippur, they were busy with the festival of Sukkot. The celebration and the concurrent completion of the reading cycle was therefore postponed to the last day of the High Holidays, the day after Sukkot.

This is all fine and good from a historical perspective, but it still doesn’t explain the inner reason. Why did G-d allow history to unfold the way it did? G-d could have invited Moses to climb Mount Sinai a week after Shavuot and thus give the people a chance to rejoice before the tablets were shattered. Why did G-d rush Moses up the mountain?

You might suggest that G-d didn’t want to postpone the teaching of Torah for even one day, but that still doesn’t explain the connection between the Torah and the last day of the High Holidays. We don’t want to suppose that the timing of this celebration is a freak of history. If we dance on this day we want to assume that we are meant to dance on this day. The question is, why.

The Second Tablets

The answer lies in a Talmudic teaching about the second set of tablets. Our sages taught that the first tablets contained only the written Torah. When G-d gave the second set of tablets, He included the oral tradition as well.[1] If the Torah was only given to us in complete form on Yom Kippur, it makes sense to complete its reading cycle and celebrate with it after Yom Kippur. Any earlier would be premature.

This answer is especially poignant, when we consider that the language used to describe Simchat Torah, is a celebration for finishing the Torah. On the surface it refers to finishing our reading cycle, but on a deeper level it refers to the finished product that was given to us at this time.

Yet, despite its poignancy, the picture is still not entirely complete. The question remains, why did G-d withhold the oral dimension of Torah on Shavuot, when He could have given us the entire Torah at once.

We can’t answer that He held back because He knew we would worship the Golden Calf because if that were true, He would have withheld the written Torah too. There must be an inner rhythm to this time of year that is in tune with the oral tradition of Torah.

A Festival of Transformation
The answer goes to the heart of the Torah’s mission. Torah isn’t just a book of study or even a conduit to G-d’s ideas and thought processes. Those are both important holy endeavors, but they aren’t the mission. The Torah’s mission is to transform us and our world into a holier and more G-dly place.

The purpose of Torah is to be studied and implemented. It isn’t meant to be an abstract thesis in an ivory tower. It’s meant to govern the conduct of society; to transform a world governed by whim and fancy into a world governed by G-d’s holy will. This transformation is the Torah’s purpose. When the mundane is transformed into holy and the dark into light, the Torah’s purpose is fulfilled.

A Season of Transformation

If transformation is the key, it is appropriate for the Torah be given in the season of transformation. Shavuot, is not a time of transformation. It is a festival of righteousness and holiness. It falls seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt, when our ancestors were in national infancy. Infants, yet to be corrupted, are innocent, pure and sweet. They don’t require transformation.

Yom Kippur, when the sinner repents and is forgiven, is a transformative day. On this day, we experience an intense personal transformation from being governed by whim to being governed by G-d’s will as presented in the Torah. The transformative rhythm of this season is in perfect concert with the Torah’s mission, rendering it the perfect season to complete our Torah reading cycle and to celebrate.

A Torah of Transformation

One last question. If this is the season conducive to Torah, why was the Torah given on Shavuot?

It is because there are two dimensions to Torah. There are the five books of Moses, a perfect work written by G-d and received by man. This is the top down dynamic of Torah. Then there is the oral tradition, transmitted by each generation and enhanced by the understanding of each successive generation. This is the bottom up dynamic – our attempt to understand G-d’s wisdom rather than G-d’s effort to share it.

It is the bottom up dimension of Torah that is intimately related to the Torah’s mission of transformation. When we study the Torah and wrestle with its ideas, the human in us is sublimated; we experience a transformation.

It is therefore most fitting that the two dimensions of Torah be given to us in their respectively appropriate times. The top down dimension of Torah was given on Shavuot, when we were in a state of holiness and innocent purity. The bottom up dimension of Torah was given on Yom Kippur, the season of atonement and transformation, when we are best suited to accomplish the Torah’s mission.

It is now understood that the completion of the Torah reading cycle and its accompanying celebration should occur in the season of transformation because the Torah is only complete when its mission is accomplished and the mission of transformation is best completed in the season of transformation.

What emerges is that Simchat Torah is not the end the High Holidays, but its culmination. The season of transformation reaches its zenith when the Torah’s mission is accomplished. It is a day of great joy, intense celebration and of perfect completion as we complete our reading of the Torah’s final verse.[2]


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim, 22: 2. Shemot Rabbah 46: 1.

[2] This essay is based on Torat Menachem 5773 pp. 311 – 317.

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