What my one-year-old taught me about Simhat Torah


The Torah is not merely an intellectual tool. At its base, it is a vehicle for amazement, awe, and profound joy.

ed note–I put this here not to bore people to tears, but rather to put to rest one of the major mistaken ideas so prevalent in ‘the movement’ today, namely that the Jews don’t follow the Old Testament at all and instead follow the Talmud. This notion–the product of sloppy, emotionally-driven ‘research’, posits the idea that the Old Testament is something good and wholesome and that if the Jews would just adhere to this instead of their Talmud, althe world’s problemas they pertain to the Jews would be fixed.
This notion is complete hogwash on several levels. The first is that you cannot have any Talmud with the Torah (Old Testament). The Talmud is a compendium of TORAH COMMENTARY collected over the centuries. Like case law coming out of the Supreme Court as a result of constitutional cases being heard, likewise the Talmud’s basis is the Torah. In short, were there no Torah, there would be no Talmud.
Next, all anyone need do in concluding that the Torah is the nucleus around which Jewish life revolves is to read the Jewish press everyday, and especially the news coming out of Israel. Rabbis and lay people both are quoted talking about the Torah’s justification for everything that the Jews do, both in the Middle East and on an international scale.
Until we get our facts straight, start dealing with things on a realistic basis instead of on emotionally-driven religiosity, we will never be able to rationally deal with (and fix) this thing known as ‘the Jewish problem’.
By Rabbi Joel Seltzer
I am obliged to make what might seem like a stunning admission to many: For years now, I have not been a fan of Simhat Torah, especially the way we observe this holiday in the Diaspora.
First we are moved by the clarion call of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. Then we find redemption in the penitential prayer of Yom Kippur. Then, we build our sukkot, return to nature, and from within the paradoxical comfort we find in vulnerability, we become “akh sameach” – “only happy.” During the intermediate days of Chol Hamoed as we shake our arba minim – the four species, (lulav, etrog, hadas and aravah) – we are reminded that bringing together disparate fragments of our world is part of our holy mission as human beings. And then, after nearly three weeks of being in a consistent state of ‘holidayness,’ (and in the Diaspora, after the marathon synagogue service of Shemini Atzeret) we are nonetheless asked to muster our last ounce of energy and to rejoice with unbridled enthusiasm for Simhat Torah, the festival of rejoicing with our Torah.
Well, I must admit it. For years now I have simply felt too tired to meaningfully connect with this joyous holiday; and I have felt guilty about it. After all, I love the Torah. The Shabbat Torah reading remains the highlight of my week, as it has since the days of my youth at Jewish summer camp. The depth of meaning which is to be found within the layers of our Torah consistently amazes me, week after week, year after year of our lives. For the Jewish people it is simple algebra: Our lives are a variable; but the Torah is our constant.
And yet, despite all of this – it is one thing to ‘love’ the Torah, and it is quite another thing to be moved to energetic ecstasy, to grab the atzei chaim, the Torah’s handles, and to dance with joyful abandon.
But, all my ambivalence about Simhat Torah disappeared this year, because of a lesson I learned from my one and a half year-old daughter. Among the many words she is now miraculously learning to articulate is a singular word which reminded me about the truest meaning of Simhat Torah.
The word is ‘Todo’, and it is how my daughter says ‘Torah.’ It started on Kol Nidre night. As I held her in my arms during the opening processional of the sifrei Torah (books of the Torah), she looked on with bright eyes and excitement. As the sifrei torah rounded our corner of the sanctuary she reached out with her hand squealing with joy: ‘Todo, Todo, Todo!’
Again this past week of Sukkot, during the “hakafot” – the processionals around the sanctuary with our lulav and etrog – my daughter was not focused on the arba minim, but rather on the sefer torah which was brought out of the ark to watch our loving procession. Again the glint in her eyes appeared, her smile curled, her hands stretched out: ‘Todo, Todo, Todo!’
In the mystical book Sefer Yetzirah it is taught that God created the universe using the forms of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. In Chapter Two we learn that “God engraved them, shaped them, combined them . . . God formed through them everything that was created and that was destined to be created.”
From this tradition we learn that these letters, these simple forms, black ink upon a white parchment, are not merely pictographs, but instead they have the capacity to transform our very reality; they have creative power. In short, they are wondrous.
This is precisely what my daughter has taught me. That the Torah is not merely an intellectual tool, it is not solely meant to give meaning to our lives and to guide our ritual and ethical behavior. Instead, at its base, the Torah is a vehicle for amazement, for awe, and therefore for profound joy.
So this year, unlike in the past, I could rejoice on Simhat Torah despite my lethargy from the long month of holidays. Looking at my daughter, I could reconnect to my own primal past as well as to the genesis of God’s ever-expanding universe, I could experience joy, and yes – l could dance.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

One thought on “What my one-year-old taught me about Simhat Torah

  1. The only way to categorize this article is “From far is beautiful, but far from beauty”.
    Talmud is a book of racism. Torah is full of nonsense. Yahweh is a deity who loves destruction, blood-shedding and virgin women.

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