The Hebrew month of Tishrei is one long marathon of Jewish rituals. We blasted into this month with Rosh Hashanah. We raised ourselves up with the White Fast of Yom Kippur. We entered the comfort of Sukkot’s shelter. We are now in the last hurrah of Tishrei, with the holiday of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
On Friday, Oct. 6, we will light the candles for the holiday on which we read the last words of the Torah and – immediately afterward – begin again by reading the first words. Traditionally, everyone in the congregation receives an aliyah on Simchat Torah. (The day on which this ritual is performed varies by movement and by congregation. In the Reform congregation I serve, we will celebrate Simchat Torah on Friday night.)
People often ask me about this practice. Why do we not start reading the Torah anew on Rosh Hashanah, when we begin the Jewish year? Why is the Torah reading cycle ended and begun on one of the most obscure of all Jewish festivals, when we are exhausted by all the other holidays of this month?
The Hasidic master known as Me’or Einayim (Menachem Nochum Twerski) explained that Simchat Torah is the day on which each of us is reconnected to the Torah in a way that can only happen after all the other holidays of Tishrei are finished (Me’or Einayim, Emor).
He said that since there are 600,000 letters in the Torah and there were 600,000 Jews who received the Torah at Mount Sinai, we conclude that each Jewish soul has a spiritual connection to one of the Torah’s letters.
Simchat Torah is the day on which each of us reconnects with our special letter. We can only do this after we have been purified by repentance on the High Holy Days and comforted by dwelling in the sukkah. On this day, each of us finally merits having an aliyah – coming up to the Torah – to meet the letter that sings to our souls.
Seen from this perspective, Simchat Torah is not just a day for rolling the Torah from one end to the other. It is the day on which we unroll ourselves to discover our unique place within the Torah. This is the task for which we have been preparing all month.
In what letter will you find your soul? Are you the letter vav, which begins the commandment, V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself”?
Are you the zion of Zachor et Yom haShabbat l’kad’sho, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?
Are you the silent aleph that yearns for God as it whispers, Ani Adonai Eloheichem, “I am Adonai your God”?
There are a multitude of different kinds of Jews, each with his or her own place and mission in the cosmos of the Torah.
You have traveled a long journey to reach this day. You have listened for the voice of the divine in the shofar’s blasts. You have dug deep into your past mistakes to seek atonement. You have sat under the roof of the sukkah to contemplate the stars.
Now comes the culmination, the moment of ascending into Torah to discover yourself.
RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston. This teaching originally appeared in his blog, www.rebjeff.com.