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Simchat Torah: Owning our Jewishness

Friday, 9 October, 2020 - 4:36 pm

 A young boy once asked a prominent philanthropist how he made it in life.

“Son, when I was nine years old I bought an apple for a penny, cleaned and shined it for hours and sold it for a nickel. I bought five apples and shined them for hours and sold each one for a nickel… and then my uncle died and I inherited his fortune.”

Being Jewish is a heritage thing, but there is something to be said about owning our Jewishness as well.

Tonight we begin celebrating the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the final days of the joyous holiday of Sukkot as articulated in the Torah, but many are more familiar with the second part of this two day holiday which is called Simchat Torah by all. Each week on Shabbat we read a portion of the Torah from the original scroll and according to this millenia-old Torah-reading schedule it works out that every Jew in the world will complete learning the Five Books of Moses this coming Sunday.

The Torah reading schedule was determined at the genesis of our nationhood and it is puzzling that the start and end date was set for the final day of the Tishrei holiday season instead of coinciding with the festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of when G-d gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

While the Torah was first officially given to the Jews on the festival of Shavuot, they almost lost it forty days later. When Moshe came down from the mountain and saw them serving an idol, he smashed the two tablets containing the ten commandments he had just received from G-d who was furious at the Jews’ treason and threatened to annihilate them immediately. Moshe secured atonement on our behalf and eighty days later, on Yom Kippur, received a second set of tablets containing the eternal covenant between ourselves and G-d.

Being in possession of the Torah is a reason to rejoice but there is a profound difference between Shavuot and Yom Kippur. On Shavuot we received the Torah as heirs of a tradition we never invested in and on Yom  Kippur we earned the rights to Torah by learning from our mistakes and correcting our behavior. The joy of Shavuot can be compared to the joy of a young child landing a major inheritance he or she never worked for whereas the joy of Yom Kippur can be compared to an entrepreneur who toiled on the startup for years and finally experienced its big breakout moment.

The yearly Torah study schedule coincides with the weeks following Yom Kippur, and the unbridled celebration in Torah happens now, because Yom Kippur represents our efforts to connect with G-d on our own accord and not as inheritors of an unearned heritage. Although we all possess the Torah by default, the true joy in Torah can only be expressed and felt once we’ve invested time and energy in allowing the Torah to possess us.

As we celebrate Simchas Torah in a social distancing era, let us make every effort to come closer to Torah this coming year. Now is the time to begin from Genesis 1:1 and allow ourselves to truly own the beautiful Torah we’ve possessed for over 3,332 years. Join a Torah class in person or online and make this an essential part of your routine.

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