Simchat Torah: Holding Onto Joy

This Dvar Torah was initially written by Sara Debbie Gutfreund for Aish HaTorah and has been edited for brevity and style.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

The name of the upcoming holiday — Simchat Torah — gives us an appreciation of its central theme — Simcha/Joy.


Why is it important for us to appreciate “joy?”


In relation to the Festival of Sukkot, the Torah tells us (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 16:15):


Seven days you shall keep a feast unto the LORD your God in the place which the LORD shall choose… you shall be altogether joyful (v’hayita ach sameach).


Why do we need to be encouraged to be joyful during this week of Sukkot, culminating in Simchat Torah?


Isn’t joy something that we should naturally gravitate towards and practice effortlessly?


Well… think about your own life. Read about the lives of others.


Especially these days it seems that a great many of us are having a difficult time “getting our joy on” for any number of reasons, all valid and none particularly new or unique.


Jon Krakauer describes reaching the top of Mount Everest:


“Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight.


I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care.”

(Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air, p.5)


I was so startled by his description I had to read the paragraph a few times.


It shook me up that a person could work for years training for a climb like this, dreaming about standing on the top of that mountain, looking out at the thousands and thousands of feet that he had found a way to rise above and then, at the literal summit of his journey, be too tired to care.


But think about it… this happens often in life.


We imagine that once we reach our destination, we will be ecstatic.


We fantasize about that moment of happiness, but it is elusive, falling so easily out of our grasp, disappointing us just at the moment when we are straddling the top of the world.


How can we find and hold onto joy in this world without it slipping out of our hands? The holiday of Simchat Torah provides an answer.


As we dance with the Torah, we bask in the unique, eternal happiness that only Torah— attaching ourselves to an eternal covenant filled with timeless wisdom-- can bring into our lives.


Here are 5 ways that Torah brings us this lasting joy and a taste of eternal life:


1. It gives us higher goals. The highest predictor of a person’s lasting happiness is a goal that transcends self. All of our personal goals, however important they may be, are part of a greater mission that all Jews share – to bring light to the world, to honor God’s Name, to pass on our sacred traditions. Torah gives us higher goals to strive for.


2. It shows us how to be grateful. Most people understand why gratitude increases our happiness levels, but we don’t necessarily know how to feel grateful on a daily basis. Torah shows us how to be grateful through prayer and mitzvot/ commandments. It imbues within us a constant awareness that we are receiving goodness and kindness from the Source of All Life, from the moment we open our eyes in the morning.


3. It teaches us hope. Life is hard and often unpredictable. Many of us have different challenges that make it difficult to see a way forward. But Torah teaches us that nothing is impossible, because our ancestors overcame seemingly impossible odds. It teaches us that redemption is in our future and that we are not struggling in vain.


4. It connects us. In a world where so many are lonely and dependent upon virtual company, Torah pulls us out of our isolation. It shows us how to set up communities and bring people together… It connects grandparents to grandchildren. It bridges the cultural gaps that so often divide us. It gives us a common language and a shared truth. It even connects us to ourselves- our inner lives and journey stories.


5. It gives us flow. Our happiest moments occur when we are in the “flow,” completely engaged and absorbed by an activity we are doing. We transcend our physical and emotional limitations by immersing ourselves in the energy of the moment. Torah gives us this sense of flow when … we choose to overcome a limitation inside of us and move forward even when we have to push ourselves to do so.


And Torah also gives us this sense of flow through song and dance.


The words that we sing bring us back to the core of who we are.


The higher goals, the gratitude, the hope, the sheer joy of connecting to our Creator.


It is a happiness that won’t slip away, whether we are straddling the top of the world or just beginning our climb.


It is in fact right here in our arms – the gift of Torah that was given to us, personally.


A happiness, a joy, that weave circles into circles that climb beyond the individual dancers and dances beyond itself.


Wishing you a joyous and meaningful Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah!

Shabbat Shalom