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The Enigmatic Holiday

Simchas Torah is an enigmatic Holiday. It marks the end of a cycle of Torah reading and the beginning of a new cycle. It comes after a series of very spiritual days such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even the festival of Sukkos focuses on the fragility of physical existence. Yet, with all of its emphasis on Torah, Simchas Torah is a Holiday that focuses on eating and drinking, in addition to the singing and dancing. How does Simchas Torah fit into the spiritual focus of this month? How do we reconcile the fact that Simchas Torah is the climax of the entire spiritual month of Tishrei with its very down-to-earth prominence of the sensual pleasures of food and drink?

Contradictory Reasons

We may approach this paradox by referring to another paradox we find in the Torah reading of Simchas Torah, which records Moses’ last words of blessing to the 12 tribes of Israel.

To the Tribe of Gad, Moses said:

“He saw the first portion because there the plot of the lawgiver is hidden.”

Rashi explains this part of the blessing as a reference to the tribe of Gad’s desire to inherit the East Bank of the Jordan, the Land that was conquered first. The reason they wanted this particular portion was because they knew that Moses would be interred there in a hidden grave.

This explanation for their choice of land seems to contradict the reason they themselves gave to Moses, recorded in the Book of Numbers (32:1-5). There it states that they had abundant livestock and the grazing area on the East Bank was ample and suited for their livestock needs.

So how is it that in this week’s parsha, the Torah alludes to their desire for this area because they wanted to be in close proximity to where Moses would eventually be interred?

Moreover, the reason given earlier relates focuses heavily on their material existence. They needed grazing land for their abundant livestock. Also, the fact that they did not want to cross over the Jordan to be in Israel proper suggests that they were more interested in their worldly possessions than they were interested in the superior holiness of the land on the other side of the Jordan.

Yet, their preference for this land because they wanted to be close to Moses, even in his passing, indicates a sophisticated sensitivity to holiness. Moses, the greatest prophet and transmitter of Torah, as mentioned in this parsha, was the epitome of holiness.

Hence the two explanations are diametrically opposite. The one mentioned explicitly in the Torah is about their preoccupation with materialistic concerns, whereas the reason hinted here reflects their heightened spirituality.

Another question: Why does the Torah make reference to the fact that Moses’ place of burial is hidden? Would they have felt differently if the location of Moses’ grave was well known?

Two Layers of Attachment to an Ideal

One way of answering these questions is to acknowledge that one may have two intertwined layers of attachment to an ideal.

Our Animal Soul’s desire for physical and materialistic things belies the true reason we want them, which is intrinsically spiritual.

According to the Ba’al Shem Tov, our desire for food is rooted in our soul’s desire to extract the powerful hidden sparks of Divine energy embedded in the food. When eaten in the proper manner (kosher, with a blessing before and after eating, with the right intent to have strength to do more Mitzvos etc.) these sparks are released and absorbed by the soul. This gives the soul more energy than it has on its own.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s explanation for our physical appetites as an effect of our soul’s  spiritual appetite, applies here as well. The true, underlying rationale for the Gadites’ desire to stay on the East Bank was due to their attachment to Moses. While their Animal Souls, indeed, desired the East Bank of the Jordan because of its economic value (for their animals, which is also a metaphor for their own Animal souls’ needs), but, their souls actually wanted this region because of its proximity to the resting place of Moses; a pure spiritual motive.

The Test

One may ask a simple question.

How do we know if our desire for something material is initially and genuinely spiritual?  Perhaps it is the other way around; our Animal Soul craves certain pleasures or benefits that have nothing to do with spirituality; using spirituality as a rationalization for something far less noble.

Applying this to the Gadites, how did Moses know that their original thought was spiritual? Perhaps their original materialistic concern was the real driving force behind their request for that piece of land.

The answer lies in their determination to join their brethren in the conquest of the Land of Israel. Moreover, they even volunteered to be in the front lines and not return to their homes on the East Bank until all of their brethren were safely settled on the land. Their self-sacrifice was the proof to Moses that their intentions were indeed noble.

Connection to Simchas Torah

This narrative is always read on Simchas Torah. There must be a lesson for us on this joyous holiday that we can derive from the two dimensions of the Gadite request for land.

On Simchas Torah Jews customarily drink more than on other Jewish Holidays in keeping with the spirit (pun intended) of the Holiday. Many question this practice. If this is such a holy day, pregnant with spiritual meaning – the day we conclude reading the Torah and begin its reading anew – why do we need the drinks? Isn’t the Holiday just an excuse for otherwise sober people to indulge?

The answer is that, on the contrary, the underlying motivation for our joy on this day is not the alcoholic beverages or the gourmet food; it is the desire to be close to G-d, the source of Torah and to Moses the transmitter of Torah, about whose life and passing we read on Simchas Torah. Even those who think they are coming for the other “attractions” are truly motivated by an inner desire to be one with their brethren in expressing their devotion to G-d and the Torah of Moses.

Yom Kippur and Simchas Torah: A Study in Contrasts

This phenomenon is even more pronounced with the Holiday of Simchas Torah, than in other Jewish holidays, including Yom Kippur.

In the former Soviet Union, Jews who were terrified of the evil regime’s desire to wipe out Judaism, and would never frequent a synagogue—not even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—flocked to the synagogues on Simchas Torah. Many did not even know why they were there and how to articulate their collective act of identification with Judaism. The reason they could not fathom their own reason for coming, not even to rationalize it as a form of defiance and resistance, was because it derived from the deepest, subconscious sanctum of their soul, which defies verbalization and articulation. Speech and even thought tell us what, why, when and how, but speech and thought cannot express who we are.  

The “who we are” manifests itself on Simchas Torah. Simchas Torah is a totally G-dly experience. The drinking and eating is a consequence of our souls’ desire to celebrate its ability to be unfettered; just be its inscrutable, ineffable self.

Yechidah-the Essential Name and the Nameless Essence

One may ask, haven’t we made the case on numerous occasions that Yom Kippur is the day, particularly, at the closing prayer of N’eilah, when our Yechidah, the essence of our soul, is revealed. What then distinguishes the Festival of Simchas Torah from Yom Kippur? And why do we need two Holidays, so close in proximity to each other, to express the same, profound soul essence? Furthermore, aren’t these two Holidays opposites? On Yom Kippur we desist from all physical pleasure, whereas on Simchas Torah we indulge?

The answer lies in the designation of the Yechidah as the essence of the soul. In truth, the Rebbe taught that the Yechidah, is actually one of the five names of the soul mentioned in the Midrash and Zohar.  A name, by definition, has a descriptive function. The true essence of the soul cannot be captured by a name.

This premise explains the difference between the soul’s essence that is revealed on Yom Kippur and that which is revealed on Simchas Torah. On Yom Kippur, the highest and most essential name of the soul is expressed. But, as essential as the name Yechidah is, it is still a name, an identity. On Simchas Torah, however, it is the essence itself that is revealed that transcends even its most sublime name and identity.  

This explains the most salient difference between the two Holidays. To be receptive to the Yechidah-essence of the soul on Yom Kippur we must remove our involvement with the most physical aspects of life; no eating drinking etc. This is so because even the Yechidah is a name and is cast in a mold that is inconsistent with the material world. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur because the Torah wants us to suffer but rather it wants us to be unencumbered by the physical so that we can express our deepest soul-powers.

On Simchas Torah, when the true essence of the soul is revealed, not just its essential name, no contradiction to the soul’s essence exists because it is not cast in a mold and has no identity, which can be contradicted by another identity. It is the soul baring itself and is not at all “threatened” by feasting.

Moreover, not only is the soul not intimidated by the food and drink of Simchas Torah, it revels in the celebration. When the essence is revealed it manifests itself on every level; form the deepest spiritual to the most basic physical.

We can now return to the question why the Gadites wanted to be close to Moses’ hidden burial place. This alludes to the fact that their desire for the land was truly an expression of their soul’s essential bond with Moses’ inscrutable essence, which was reflected in the fact that no one could even find Moses grave.

Simchas Torah is thus the ultimate expression of Moshiach because Moshiach possesses the ultimate expression of the soul’s essence and will usher in an age of Redemption when we will have a perpetual Simchas Torah. We will then express our soul’s essential connection with the essence of Torah, Moses and Moshiach, and ultimately be on with G-d’s essence.

Good Shabbos and Good Yom Tov!

By Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

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