Jewish Oxygen

Both Shevuos and Simchas Hatorah celebrate our connection with, or better, love, for the Torah. Two explanations differentiate between them. One is the Dubner Maggid’s well-known mashal of the young man who agreed to marry the king’s daughter without having seen her. Once he found out how beautiful and intelligent the princess was, he asked the king to make a second party. Similarly, we accepted the Torah on Shevuos without knowing what was in it. Within a few months we came to appreciate how much wisdom is in it. Therefore we celebrate a second time on Simchas Torah. Another explanation is based on the two reasons we appreciate a gift. One is its value; the other is the importance of the giver. On Shevuos we celebrate because we have received the most wonderful gift of the Torah. Then on Simchas Torah we celebrate because of the Giver of the Torah is the Creator of the World, Himself. That He gave us the Torah is a very great honor and source of great simcha for us. All this, coming after the beautiful festival of Sukkos, makes it truly a zman simchaseinu – a time of great spiritual and physical elation.

A dilemma I had this year was based on a halocho in the first section of Shulchan Aruch (1:3). “It is correct for all G-d-fearing people to be distressed by the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash.Mishna Berura (1:9) discusses the importance of saying Tikun Chatzos, the special supplications for the speedy rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash. Pious Jews wake up shortly before midnight to bewail the Churban HaBayis. We break a glass at every chuppa in memory of the Beis Hamikdash in fulfillment of the promise of Tehilim (137:6) that we shall never forget Yerusholayim, even and especially at our most joyous moments. Simchas Torah is so joyful with apparently unrestrained dancing and celebrations that I wondered how to fulfill this contrasting obligation at the same time – mourning over the destroyed Beis Hamikdash. Am I supposed to be thinking about Galus as I’m dancing with a Sefer Torah?

We have a parallel, if contrasting, conundrum at another time of the year. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning devoted to pleading with Hashem to bring us out of Golus and to rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash. If we can’t cry on Tisha B’Av because of the Churban Habayis and our long painful exile, we should cry that we are not crying. About our two most serious days of fasting, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, it was once said that on Yom Kippur “We haven’t got time to eat” and on Tisha B’Av, “Who wants to eat?” And yet we have a mitzva to be b’simcha, every day. “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha“ makes no mention of Tisha B’Av being an exception. The famous statement of Chazal is that “From the beginning of Av we have to reduce our simcha.” It does not say that we should have no simcha at all. But what room is there for simcha on such a day of mourning?

Kiddushin 31b helps us in this second conundrum in. There we learn that while Avimi was waiting for his elderly father Rav Abohu to wake up so he could give him the drink he had requested, he had an insight into Tehilim: “A song of Asaf. G-d, the nations have come into Your inheritance. They have impurified Your holy Temple.” [79:1] How can this be a song? Surely it was a great tragedy. A dirge of Asaf would seem to be more appropriate. In the merit of the mitzva of honoring his father, Avimi suddenly realized the answer to this question which Rashi explains. Hashem poured out his wrath on wood and stones. The Jewish People were not worthy of the Beis Hamikdash. Had Hashem not destroyed it, He would have had to destroy them. Hashem, in His mercy, decided to keep the Jewish People alive and give them a chance to improve their behavior. Therefore the Beis Hamikdash had to be destroyed instead. Asaf thought of this positive aspect of the destruction when he wrote, “A song of Asaf.” This can also be in our minds even as we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash on Tisha B’Av. We can be b’simcha even as we mourn. “He poured out His wrath on wood and stones.”

But our first conundrum remains. How can we remember the destroyed Beis Hamikdash as we dance on Simchas Torah?

My colleague and co-writer Rabbi Yitzchok Rubin of Manchester once wrote about a tiny Sefer Torah in a small shtiebel in Brooklyn. What was the history of this Sefer Torah and how did it end up in this particular stiebel? An elderly Jew, a Holocaust survivor, would explain to anyone who asked, that he was amongst thousands of barely living Jews in a concentration camp. He heard that a fellow inmate who had a trade was allowed to return to his town from time to time. He implored him to do a great favor and rescue a tiny Sefer Torah which he hoped was still in his home. Amazingly this Jew risked his life and hid the minuscule Sefer Torah under his clothes when he returned to the camp and secretly gave it to the first Jew. Equally miraculously, the Sefer Torah was never discovered and it brought comfort, hope and strength to its owner and all others who were aware of its existence. This Jew survived and came to live in Brooklyn, bringing the Sefer Torah with him. He donated it to the stiebel where he davened. This Sefer Torah, now in the Aron Hakodesh of the stiebel, literally gave many Jews in the camp the will to survive and with it, life itself.

Not just during the Holocaust but throughout our long exile, the Sefer Torah and what it represents have given us life, both spiritually and physically. Even if, on occasions, our enemies managed to destroy scrolls of our Torah, “the letters flew in the sky.” It was our ‘oxygen’ whenever we were forced to flee. There were rings on the sides of the Aron Hakodesh in the Mishkan, with poles placed through them for easy transport. These poles were never allowed to be removed,(Shemos 25:15) symbolizing that even if we have to flee, we must take the Sefer Torah with us to ensure our survival.

Therefore, in the midst of the celebration of Simchas Torah, holding a Sefer Torah adds greatly to our simcha because we grasp its wisdom and beauty and that it was given to us by the Creator of the World. At the same time, however, we remember the destroyed Beis Hamikdash because it is precisely the Sefer Torah and what it represents which has enabled us to survive our long Galus.

Vezos Habracha – The Key to Simchas Yom Tov

Vehoyisa ach same’ach (Devarim 15:15) is an explicit source in the Torah for the obligation to be b’simcha throughout Succos. The Vilna Gaon famously described this as the hardest mitzva of Succos – to rejoice constantly throughout the eight days of Yom Tov. How can we fulfill this mitzva?

Of course, sitting in our succa is always a delight, assuming that we could build it close to home and the weather is reasonable. Our nashim tzidkanios prepare delicious seudos and if the rest of the family co-operate, everyone can enjoy them. But we are still looking for other reasons to be b’simcha. There are many, of course, but in this particular essay, I am looking for a path to simcha which we can learn from the final parsha of the year, Vezos Habracha, always read at the end of the week of Succos. I can already tell you that our source will be the very first letter of the parsha – the letter vav and why Moshe is called an Ish Ho’Elokim, a man of G-d, in the first posuk.

There is a non-Jewish song (and I am now giving my age away) made famous by Harry Secombe, which starts with the line, “If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of Spring.” If we ruled the world, what day would we want every day to be?

In “L’Dovid Hashem Ori”, which we are still saying twice daily, Dovid Hamelech asserts, “Though an army would besiege me, my heart would not fear; though war would arise against me, bezos, in this I trust. The commentators grapple with what bezos refers to.

If you’ll excuse the intrusion, may I ask what you were thinking about a few days ago when you prostrated yourself on the floor three times during Musaf of Yom Kippur. If you were mainly concerned about how to avoid getting your kittel or skirt dusty, that is not an acceptable answer.

I will tell you what I was thinking about. The first time, it was about the amazing miracle which took place in the Beis Hamikdash when, despite the fact that people were standing shoulder to shoulder, there was suddenly ample room when everyone prostrated themselves. I was imagining myself being in the courtyard of the Beis Hamikdash when this was happening. It must have been a mind boggling, unforgettable experience.

The second time, I was aware of my face being close to the dust of the ground and I thought of the posuk in Hallel, Mekimi me’ofor dol – Hashem raises a poor man from the dust.” How Hashem has provided us all with whatever we own today. Our health, our family, our possessions, any achievements are all due to Hashem’s kindness. Without Him we would be utterly destitute.

The third time, I concentrated on the words we were saying, “Boruch shem kevod malchuso l’om vo’ed – Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever.” I pondered on the words, “for ever.” Of the people who lived a few generations ago, how many have we heard of? Maybe a few very famous people. The rest are no longer. We manage without them. And in a few years (120 iyH), we’ll also be gone and the world will carry on without us. What are we? Like a “passing shadow, a dissipating cloud and fleeting dream.” We are like “clay in the hand of the potter, curtain in the hand of the embroidered and silver in the hand of the silversmith.” Hashem is forever. The world is His.

Parshas Ha’azinu ends with what appears to be a great blow to Moshe Rabbeinu on the last day of his life. Hashem tells him, “Go up to Har Nevo and see the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel as a possession. You will die on the mountain…because you didn’t sanctify My Name amongst the Children of Israel. You will see the Land but you will not enter the Land which I am giving to the Children of Israel.” For forty years Moshe Rabbeinu gave his life to the Jewish People. On one occasion the people provoked him into a momentary lapse, he made a mistake, whatever it was, failed to sanctify Hashem’s Name as he could have. His punishment was that he would not be allowed to complete his life’s mission of leading the People into the future Eretz Yisroel. It seems to be a great tragedy. And Hashem reminds Moshe of this on his final day. What a sad end to forty years of leadership. They’ll be going in; he won’t. We would feel shattered; decades of superhuman effort coming to a humiliating end. We might entertain thoughts of unfairness, injustice and certainly great sadness. But Moshe Rabbeinu accepted everything, even this last message from Hashem, with simcha. How could he do that? Because he was an Ish Ho’Elokim. He recognized that Hashem is the fairest Judge and ultimate Merciful One. Whatever He decides is for the best. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that he was a mere mortal, fulfilling a certain role for a few years until others take over after him.

The letter vav of Vezos Habracha combines the last posuk of Ha’azinu with the first posuk of Vezos Habracha, as the Ohr Hachaim points out. This realization that Hashem rules the world, and we do not, is a blessing and a source of simcha. Confusion, filling our minds with what, in our opinion, could have happened and should have happened, leads to depression. Instead we should have full trust that Hashem, whose world it is, knows exactly what He is doing and it is all for the best. We are a mere passing shadow and a fleeting dream, as I was thinking on Yom Kippur, prostrated on my shul floor.

Perhaps this was what Dovid Hamelech was referring to when he said “Bezos ani vote’ach.” Facing battles, wars, sudden danger or potential disappointment, he put his trust in the “Zos” of Vezos Habracha that we don’t rule the world and it is pointless and indeed heretical, to consider what, in our opinion, should be changed for the better. The world is Hashem’s; we can rely on Him to do the right thing.

With this in our minds throughout Succos we can increase our simchas Yom Tov. We earned exactly what we were supposed to have earned last year. Our health is exactly as it should be. Every frustration was in exactly the measure our great and kind Judge decided was appropriate for us. Vezos Habracha – this understanding and belief is our blessing and the key to our simchas Yom Tov. Enjoy!