“Rejoice and Be Glad in Simhat Torah”
Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah, the final festival of the Jewish calendar, is described as an intimate rendezvous between God and the Jewish people. Unlike Sukkot, there are no “official” mitzvot, no external, physical symbols of the holiday. Instead of seven days, a number symbolic of completeness and fulness of all Divine aspects, there is but one day. (In both of these respects, it is analogous to Shavuot, which is similarly called “Atzeret,” and also a festival centered around Torah) Rather than the seventy bullocks sacrificed during the course of Sukkot, seen as symbolic of the nations of the world, there is but a single one. The midrash speaks of God asking Israel to tarry with him one more day, comparing him to a king who made an elaborate celebration for his extended entourage, at whose end he asks his closest and most intimate friends to stay for one more day, to say goodbye in a more intimate way. “It is hard for me to part from you” (b. Sukkah 55b; Num. Rab. 21:25).
The Hakkafot (processions) of Simhat Torah open with a series of biblical verses, the first of which is, “You have been shown to know that the Lord is God, there is none other but him” (Deut 4:35). This last day is the culmination of the “spiritual knowledge” that is the theme of all the festival of Tishrei: the knowledge that there is ultimately naught but God. Paradoxically, it is both an intimate holiday, and simultaneously one marked by an outburst of ecstatic joy.
Another verse recited before the Hakkafot is “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his deliverance” (Isaiah 25:9). An interesting aggadah in the final lines of Tractate Ta’anit (31a) relates that “God will make a dance for the righteous in the Future; each one shall point with his finger [upon seeing the Divine glory, visible to their eyes], and say ‘this is the Lord for whom we have waited!...’” Rav Soloveitchik once contrasted the synagogue processions of Sukkot and Simhat Torah as follows: During Sukkot, the Jews stand on the periphery of the circle, holding in their hands the lulav and etrog, an “object of mitzvah,” while the Torah scroll is in the center. On Simhat Torah, the Jews holding the Sifrei Torah are on the periphery, while there is seemingly nothing in particular in the center. But no: in the center, invisible to eyes of flesh and blood, is the Divine Presence. The Jews dancing on Simhat Torah anticipate the eschatological dance of the righteous.
What is Simha?
What do we mean by simha (“joy”) anyway? When we wrote last week about Sukkot and the dwelling in the Sukkah as a locus for our joy, we described it as a kind of calm, contented, tranquil joy in which each person feels happiness in simply being in God’s good world. But there is another kind of simha: the energetic, intense, at times even ecstatic and explosive atmosphere generated at great public gatherings such as the Hakafot of Simhat Torah or the Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah in olden times.
One may learn much about simha from a close reading of Mainonides’ presentation of the concept of Simhat Yom Tov, “rejoicing in the festivals,” in Hilkhot Yom Tov, 6.17-21, as well as from his remarks at the end of Hilkhot Lulav (8.12-15). This can be done, first and foremost, by a negative process of elimination.
First, simha is inconsistent with selfishness. Rambam lambasts those who celebrate the festival in the closed circle of their family and friends, “locking the gates of his courtyard,” all the while ignoring the poor, unfortunate and embittered (this presumably includes the lonely). Such a festive meal is not a “simha of mitzvah” but simhat kereso, “a celebration for his own stomach.” Simha must go with Hesed, with acts of loving kindness to others (§18).
Second, true simha is sharply contrasted with holelut & kalut rosh (§20): frivolity and emptiness, what might be called in good colloquial American “fooling around.” Many people equate “joy” with foolishness, with license to perform practical jokes, or with the often vulgar, standardized humor of professional comedians.
Third, true simha is inconsistent with lewdness, with intermingling of the sexes for questionable purposes. Rambam calls upon community officials to be vigilant against flirtatious gatherings in the “gardens and orchards or by the rivers” on festive days (§21). This comment was of course rooted in a very traditional society, with very strict norms of separation of the sexes. For those of us who advocate a society that is “mixed but modest,” the same issues present themselves, albeit with different implementation. Unfortunately, there are places where Simhat Torah is notorious for degenerating into a gigantic mixer.
Fourth, simha involves a certain spiritual goal. The Talmud (Beitza 15b) is much exercised to find the proper balance between sacred and profane activities on the holidays: “for God” and “for yourselves.” On the one hand, as we human beings are creatures of flesh and blood, the festive meal is an integral part of simha: “there is no joy without meat and wine.” Indeed, the more spiritual the message of the holiday—as in the case of Shavuot—the more essential it is that it be celebrated davka with physical expression. On the other hand, a significant part of the day must be spent in religious spiritual activities: study, prayer, etc. (§19).
Having defined the negative parameters, Maimonides also gives a succinct positive definition of simha: “to be joyous and good hearted, he and his household” (§17), and that this joy involve “the service of the Creator of All” (§20).
But that is not all. In Hilkhot Lulav, he describes how, during Sukkot, there was simha yeteira, a greater rejoicing than the regular rejoicing of the other festivals. He refers by this to Simhat Beit ha-Sho’eva, the “Rejoicing of the House of the Water Drawing,” a special celebration held in the Women’s Courtyard of the Temple, with torches, musical instruments, and pious men “dancing, clapping, leaping, twirling, jumping,” etc. He adds that one who refrains from participating in this uninhibited rejoicing out of pomposity and a sense of his own self-importance commits a sin (Lulav 8.15).
I believe that our own rejoicing during Simhat Torah derives in part from the sense that Sukkot is an appropriate time for “extra rejoicing,” transferring the aura of Simhat Beit ha-Shoe’va from the intermediate nights of the festival to the final day, and from the subject of water to that of Torah (which are symbolically related). Interestingly, almost the identical words as are used above by the Rambam (and the Mishnah) are used in describing the behavior of Gaon of Vilna during Simhat Torah, adding that “wisdom enlightened his face, which shone like a burning torch” (Ma’aseh Rav, in Siddur Ishei Yisrael, p. 519).
VE-ZOT HA-BERAKHAH: “God has come from Seir”
The actual text of this final portion of the Torah, Ve-Zot ha-Berakha (Deut 33-34), is often overlooked in the excitement and hullabaloo of the festival of Simhat Torah. This is a shame, as it is one of the most beautiful and poetical of all the sections of the Torah.
Its central theme is the blessing given by Moses to each of the twelve tribes prior to his death, on the eve of their crossing over to the Land of Israel/Canaan. It is in many respects similar to Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis 49, and a point-by-point comparison of the two would be instructive. But Moses’ blessings, unlike those of Jacob, are addressed to the tribes rather than to individuals, and allude more explicitly to their collective destiny and future. There is much foreshadowing of future events. The conflict for leadership between Joseph and Judah is more to the fore than in Genesis; the assimilation of Simeon within Judah by the end of the First Temple period is already foreshadowed by its non-mention here. There are other examples, as well—Zebulun’s sea-faring, Asher’s settling in the olive-rich hills of the upper Galilee—and others too numerous to mention.
This blessing also differs from that in Genesis in the presence of a lengthy introduction and epilogue, retelling in very concrete terms the story of the Sinai epiphany as well as reciting the praises of God, and of Israel as a whole. “The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir… with myriads of holy ones, a flaming fire (or, probably midrashically, “law”: ashdat) at his right hand…” And straight after that, the central role of Moses as conveyor of the Torah: “Moses commanded us a law, as the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” And the royal rule of God: “And there was a king in Jeshurun, when the people gathered together, all the tribes of Israel…” (vv. 2-5). And afterwards, the peroration: “There is none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens at your help, and his majesty through the skies… Happy are you, O lsrael, a people saved by the Lord… and you shall tread upon the high places” (vv. 26-29).
“And the people of Israel wept Moses for thirty days”
The very final chapter recounts the death of Moses. A well-known midrash states that Moses himself penned the final eight verses, recounting his death, with tears in his eyes. There is perhaps a certain irony that the reading for this most joyous of all Jewish holidays should relate the death of the outstanding leader of all time, and the thirty days of mourning that followed in its wake (34:8). Perhaps it is meant as an important reminder of the mortality of us all, even the greatest of men; paradoxically, this knowledge provides the psychological basis for the capacity for true joy. This, too, is clearly one of the reasons for the choice of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) as the scroll read on this festival.
This verse (34:8) in fact serves as the basis for the institution of sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning observed after the death of close relatives. Hence, I would like to take this opportunity to recount in written form some things I said on the subject at the sheloshim honoring the memory Hy (Hayyim) Faverman, father of a close friend, who passed away in the summer of 2000.
Although we are accustomed to thinking of sheloshim in connection with death and mourning, the unit of thirty days is a central one in Jewish life and in halakha, in a variety of contexts. Thirty days, or one lunar month, is a basic, natural unit of time; coming in between the day and the year, it contains, perhaps more than any other unit of time, aspects of proximity combined with significant duration. Unlike the year, which spans a complete full cycle of the seasons, after one month events are still fresh and relatively immediate in ones mind. Thus, for many purposes, an unspecified period of time is considered to be thirty days: one who takes an oath, without specifying its duration; one who becomes a Nazirite; a divorce writ given “on condition” (e.g., that the husband not return within a given time period)—the typical examples given for all these in Rabbinic literature are thirty days. Thirty days also represent a full cycle of those things which are not fully seen: the phases of the moon; the unseen phases of a woman’s bodily cycle (so central in Jewish marital life): when these things come full turn, a new phase has begun.
So it is, too, in mourning: the death of a parent or a child, a sibling or a spouse, is not so easily forgotten, but once the moon has crossed the sky in all its different phases, and returned to the position it was the time of the death, it is as if the sad event has lost some of its immediacy and begun to recede into the past. One of course remembers and grieves, but one no longer wears ones mourning as a badge.
But there are actually two, or even more, phases to mourning. The most intense and immediate is the shivah, the seven days following the funeral, devoted exclusively to mourning. Most strikingly, one stays at home, does not go to work, does not even go to the synagogue to say Kaddish. Rather, friends and the community come to one—to comfort, to commiserate, to allow one to retell the story of the one who is now gone forever. Seven days: not a natural, astronomical cycle, but the seven-day cycle of work and rest, of holy and mundane, that is at the heart of Jewish religious existence. During the month of sheloshim, by contrast, one goes out in the world, but carries a certain aura of mourning: one does not cut ones hair, groom oneself, wear freshly laundered and pressed clothes; nor does one party or travel.
Beyond that, in the special case of the death of a father or mother, some of these observances continue, in more limited scope, for an entire year. Why a parent, one might ask? Surely, the death of a child is more poignant, more shattering; the death of a spouse, a lifelong companion, may be more painful, touching a more intimate spot inside oneself. Nevertheless, it is parents who brought one into the world; it is they who are described as God’s partners in ones creation; it is they those whom one is ipso facto required to honor. Hence, their loss is more heavily mourned.
Torah, God and Israel
Two short thoughts for Simhat Torah. First, in wake of our earlier discussion (Rosh Hashanah) about malkhut—the majestic, uncanny, transcendent, “Wholly Other” aspect of the Divine: It occurred to me that Torah somehow serves as a kind of buffer or even as a kind of intermediary to bridge the unfathomable gap between God and man. Instead of concerning ourselves with theology, Jews have Torah, which is in some sense an apotheosis of God, certainly a Divine gift, but something which addresses itself to the human world and the concrete problems of human life: the Torah is concerned with ethics, with the government of society and its norms, with family life, with business, with how to deal with the raw biological impulses for things like food and sex—in short, how to be a human being. Thus, the “happy/blessed” man of Psalm 1 “ponders” the Torah day and night.
In a peculiar way, it occurs to me that this is one of the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity. We, too, have an entity that somehow bridges the Divine and human, but rather than a mortal human being who is both man and God—something that, to my Jewish and sometimes-Litvishe mind, taxes human understanding, not to mention several basic principles of our understanding of God, beyond its limits—we have the Torah, a multi-leveled text/law/literature/Wisdom.
Simhat Torah: Ein Eidele Tog
Many years ago I spent Simhat Torah with a family of Bobover Hasidim. During the evening meal, the father commented that Simhat Torah is Ein eidele tog—a Yiddish phrase best translated as “a gentle/refined day.” It is a day of joy, perhaps even of ecstasy, but within which there burns the pure light of a certain holy spirituality. The day even carries certain echoes of Yom Kippur. In the old-time tradition, many of the piyyutim or other phrases from the liturgy for the Days of Awe are sung on Simhat Torah, during the Hakkafot or at the table: Simhah le-artzekha, Va-ye’etayu, ha-Aderet veha-Emunah, and others. As if we return to the solemn air of the High Holy Days, but without the element of fear and tension and anxiety as to “will we be inscribed for a good year or….”
The joy, as the day’s name itself implies, is a joy in the Torah, not joy as an end in itself. Too often, it seems, Simhat Torah is taken as an excuse to make noise, to let off steam, to engage in boisterousness. Need it be said that this is not the point of the holiday? I recall a conversation with Rav Nahman Bulman, ztz”l, in which he described how he wanted to convey this feeling to the boys at Yeshivat Or Sameah, where he served as spiritual guide: a kind of oral tradition as to how to celebrate this very special day as a day of refined, elevated, Jewish joy—ein eidele tog.
Simhat Torah in the Zohar
Someone recently pointed out to me what may well be the earliest reference to the holiday of Simhat Torah—in the Zohar, III:156b (Pinhas). I shall present it here without commentary:
“And on the eighth day there shall be a convocation… one bullock, one goat” [Num 28:35-36]. The masters of Mishnah compared this to a king who invited guests. After he sent them away, he said to the members of his household, I and you shall make together a little feast. And what is meant by atzeret (“convocation”)? As is said, zeh ya’atzor be’ami (“He it is who shall rule over My people”; 1 Sam 9: 17), and ‘atzor means naught but kingship. From the aspect of the Supernal Shekhinah [Binah?] they made a great feast, and from the aspect of Kingship [Malkhut] they made a small feast. And the people of Israel are accustomed to make a rejoicing, and it is called “the Rejoicing in the Torah,” and they adorn the Torah scroll with its crown, for the Torah scroll alludes to the Tiferet of Shekhinah, “the crown of glory.”
And from Sukkot on to Simhat Torah
It seems clear to me that, at some point in the later Middle Ages, this idea of “rejoicing before God” became embodied in the festive day of Simhat Torah, and specifically in the hakkafot. Perhaps, because after the destruction of the Temple, Jews felt a sense of direct contact with the Divine specifically by means of the Torah and its study. The following passage shows something of the feeling of this latter holiday in the Study House of one of the greatest figures of Eastern European Jewry—the Gaon of Vilna. Interestingly, the very same phrases quoted by Rambam from 2 Samuel, were in turn used to describe the celebration of Simhat Torah. (The passage is from Ma’aseh Rav, a brief collection of the Gaon’s practices, published in Siddur Ishei Yisrael, p. 86):
The Gaon was most joyful on the festival of Sukkot, and particularly on Shmini Atzeret, because, according to the secret teachings [i.e., of the Kabbalah] it is more joyous than all the others days of the festival. And liturgical poems are recited with joy and song: Ha-Aderet veha-Emunah, Va-ye’atayon, Titbarekh ve-tishtabakh (found in the Ma'amadot after Ani maamin) and similar piyyutim. And there was great joy. And on Simhat Torah they circled the Bimah seven times with the Torah, no less than seven times, but one could add to them; and they sang the above praises, as well as Barukh shimkha from the Ari’s book, Shaarei Zion.
And he [the Gaon], of blessed memory, would walk before the Torah scrolls very joyfully, with great strength and splendor, and [that] man’s wisdom would light up his face [after Eccles 8:1] like a burning torch, and he would clap his hands together, and leap and spin with all his strength before the Torah scrolls. And after the singers concluded each verse, he would sing it after them. But once the scrolls were returned to the ark, he would not be quite so joyful, but only as on the level of other festival days.
To conclude, a description of Simhat Torah as it was celebrated just over a hundred years ago in the Polish town of Zakroczym (which happened to be my own grandmother’s shteitl):
On the afternoon of Shemeni Atzeret and the early evening of Simhat Torah, the members of each society would gather in the home of its leader or in the home of the gabbai of that month for a “festive meal.” This was a light repast, at which they would drink and enjoy various pastries, kechlakh, smoked fish, lentils, fruit and the like. My brother, the rabbi [i.e, Rabbi Yonah Mordecai Zlotnik; i.e., great-uncle of this author-JC], visited each group, tasted something, and spoke about the significance of the day. He then went on to the next society, accompanied by the leaders of the group, by the light of a special lantern carried on a pole (with the name of the particular society written on the glass of the lantern). Finally, he was accompanied by all of them to the Hevra Kaddisha [Burial Society]. From there, while holding a Torah scroll, he was led under a huppa [canopy used at weddings] with songs and music, accompanied by the entire congregation and all the lanterns, to the synagogue for the Hakkafot [the dancing procession with the Torah scrolls that is the central feature of Simhat Torah]. One who has not seen this rejoicing, will find it difficult to believe that it took place in our town, in the exile of Poland. Yet even when Messiah son of David comes—may he come speedily in our day—the joy of Simhat Torah will not be greater than that of Simhat Torah in Zakroczym in those days.
One is reminded by all this of the words of Rabbi Eleazar in the final lines of Tractate Ta’anit (31a): “In the future, the Holy One blessed be He will make a dance for the righteous, and He will sit among them, and each one points with his finger and says: ‘And it shall be said on that day: behold, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the Lord for whom we have waited, let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’ [Isa 25:9].” Significantly, this is also one of the verse recited before the Hakkafot. This saying, and the verse, remind me of something Rav Soloveitchik once said: on Sukkot the Jews form a holy circle, with their lulav and etrog held in their hands and the Torah in the center; on Simhat Torah, everything is elevated by one degree: the Jews form a circle while holding the Torah scrolls, while the Shekhinah itself is present in the center of the circle.
Sukkah and Lulav
A few more insights concerning some of the customs and mitzvot of the festival. First, regarding Ushpizin, the custom of inviting “supernal guests”—the seven “shepherds,” the central figures in Jewish history—into ones sukkah on each of the seven nights of the festival. This may be understood on two levels. First, as an extension of the mitzvah of inviting flesh and blood guests during Sukkot. Extending hospitality to others, particularly to the poor and unfortunate, is regarded generally as an important act of hesed, of practicing lovingkindness towards others; it is told that Rav Amram Blau, better known as one of the most extreme zealots of Jerusalem, never sat down even to an ordinary weekday meal without at least one indigent guest at his table. But this is doubly so on Sukkot. Perhaps it is because the sukkah as such creates a certain sense of levelling: it comes to teach a sense of the frailty of our existence, of the tenuous nature of our hold on our possessions, and by extension on life itself; an awareness of our ultimate dependence on God, and of the ultimate equality of rich and poor. All this is expressed in the idea that “It is fitting that all Israel dwell in one sukkah”—related, perhaps, to the idea that each individual family’s sukkah is somehow a branch of a universal, metaphysical sukkah.
But beyond that, each of the Ushpizin or supernal guests invited symbolizes one of the seven lower sefirot, the “building blocks” of the cosmos, and thus invites a certain meditation on the sefirot. This is in turn reinforced by the seven-fold processions conducted both on Hoshana Rabbah (with lulav and etrog), and on the night and day of Simhat Torah (with the Torah scrolls), replete with verses and other readings focused upon each of these sefirot.
I already mentioned last year that I see Simhat Torah as a latter-day borrowing or transferal of the intense, explosive joy of Simhat Beit Hashoevah in olden times to a slightly different phase of Sukkot. It occurs to me that this may also explain an interesting custom. In almost every synagogue I’ve ever visited for Simhat Torah, the last of the seven hakkafot is concluded with a dance to the words “Next Year in Jerusalem Rebuilt”—the same words used to conclude both the Passover Seder and the Neilah prayer that concludes Yom Kippur. In both these cases, this cry reflects the idea that the observance of these two holidays, rich and deep as they may be, are nevertheless felt as lacking something essential in the absence of the rebuilt Jerusalem with the Temple at its heart. Passover without the paschal sacrifice, offered and consumed by each extended family in the courtyards of Jerusalem; Yom Kippur, without the impressive atonement ritual for the entire Jewish people, are but a pale shadow of what they are with these elements. So, too, Sukkot, is classically the pilgrimage festival par excellence: with numerous sacrifices, public and individual; with its unique ritual of pouring water upon the altar, preceded by the ceremonious drawing of the water from the depths of the Shiloah, in turn preceded by an all-night ecstatic celebration with pious elders dancing and juggling torches; the processions around the altar with lulav and etrog; the long willow branches placed leaning upon the altar, to cries of “Beauty to you, O altar”—all these are but distant memories, known from ancient tomes. So, at the very end of Sukkot, we declare our hope that this festival, like Pesah and Yom Kippur, will soon be renewed in its ancient splendor.
Yet another aspect to Sukkot. The aspect of hiddur mitzvah, of glorifying or beautifying the mitzvah, is specifically emphasized in connection with all the mitzvot of Sukkah. It is well known that the requirement of hiddur, of physical beauty and perfection, applies to the selection of the four species. But there is also a kind of sliding scale in terms of the manner of its performance as well. The minimum Torah requirement is that one simply hold the four species in ones hands for a brief moment on the first day. But Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai already introduced the practice of taking them all seven days, in memory of the Temple. Beyond that, it is customary to hold them throughout the recitation of Hallel—the psalms of joyous praise recited on the holiday—as a way of “rejoicing before the Lord,” waving them toward all six directions of the cosmos at certain key verses. Finally, the Talmud tells that there were certain people—Yakirei Yerushalayim, the “distinguished men of Jerusalem”—who used to hold the four species in their hands throughout the day: during all the prayers, when they went to make a social call or visit the sick, and even during meals would place them prominently in view.
Similarly, the mitzvah of sukkah has a kind of ”sliding scale.” The mitzvah may be fulfilled in a minimal way: eating an egg’s worth of hallah in the sukkah on the first night, and refraining from eating a “fixed meal’ outside the sukkah the other seven days. But many of the pious, from the time of the Talmud, were careful to eat everything, even the smallest morsel, even fruit, light drinks, and water, in the sukkah. Beyond that, the ideal is to literally “live” in the sukkah: to sleep there, to spend time there in between meals, to study or talk with ones friends there, to “hang out” there (metayel basukkah). It is told that the Gaon of Vilna did not leave the Sukkah between the first night of the festival until the night of Simhat Torah. There are even hasidim who (incorrectly) refuse to leave the sukkah when it rains. The Talmud calls such people “fools,” to which they reply that at least they are “holy fools” (I have known such people personally!). There is also a concept of noy sukkah, of beautifying and decorating the sukkah: already the Tosefta mentions the practice of adorning the sukkah with “decorated carpets and woven stuff, nuts and almonds, peaches and pomegranates, clusters of grapes, sheaves of wheat, wine, oil and flour” (Tosefta Sukkah 1.4; quoted in b. Sukkah 10a).
I see all this as related to the idea of simha: of the mitzvot as the instrument of our connection to God. Since this religious connection is the source of true joy in life, we emphasize hiddur on every level of Sukkot.
A few comments about Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes read on Sukkot. This book is a perennial riddle: filled with scepticism, a seemingly nihilistic negation of every conceivable aspect of life, the obvious question is: what is this book doing in the Bible, anyway? Indeed, the consensus of modern scholarship on the subject is that it is rather more influenced by Greek philosophy, perhaps of the school of the cynics, than by indigenous Hebrew thought.
Be that as it may, I have found the following reading of it useful. Typically, religious-ethical exhortations and sermons are based upon what might be described “deductive” thinking. The preacher starts by asserting initial faith axioms—the existence of God, the Divine origin of the Torah, etc.—and then proceeds to demonstrate why one must live a pious, god-fearing life of Torah and mitzvot. The mood of such “Mussar” is often heavy and puritanical, negating the world as ”traif” as opposed to the world of holiness and purity of the Torah.
Kohelet starts from the opposite end of the pole, beginning with a thorough examination of life and of the world. Using what one might call the “inductive” mode (the term is used, in a somewhat different context, in Peter Berger’s The Heretical Imperative), the vast bulk of the book is a rather meandering, unsystematic presentation of the authors’ varied experiences during a long and busy life. He describes how he tried just about everything: the pursuit of wealth, of pleasure, of political power, of wisdom, etc., finding in the end that “all is vanity.” The words hevel, sikhlut, holeleut—“vanity,” foolishness,” “empty-headed hilarity”—are repeated almost endlessly. Life seems meaningless, first of all, because it is filled with injustice and unfairness: the diligent and industrious man leaves his carefully saved, hard-earned wealth to a stupid, hedonistic lout of a son who blows everything he worked so hard to build in a giant spending spree. The rise and fall of entire nations is similarly dependent upon such quirks of fate as whether they have a wise or a foolish king? Secondly, the fact of death, the transitory nature of life, makes a mockery of everything. The fool and the wise man, the good person and the wicked, the pious and the sacrilegious, all end up in the same place. At one point, given all this, he suggests as his preliminary conclusion something that may be roughly paraphrased as follows: Since nothing lasts or matters in the long run anyway, live as best as you can, with a woman you love, and enjoy yourself during your few days on this earth (9:9-10). But then, in the peroration, he reaches a more pious conclusion: in the final analysis, the only thing that makes sense, that lasts, is to fear God and do His commandments (12:13). It is as if he is saying: since all human answers to the riddle of life have been shown to be full of holes, and ultimately unsatisfying, one can only fall back upon the old truths of religious tradition.
Kol Mevaser ve-Omer: for Hoshana Rabbah
The most profound interpretation I have ever seen for the strange rituals of Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, is that of the Sefat Emet. He explains the central role of the willow branch on this holiday, with which Sukkot as such concludes, on the basis of the classical midrashim on lulav and etrog. The willow responds to the simple Jew, who has “neither taste nor flavor,” neither learning nor good deeds. Having no merit, he falls back upon simple prayer: pouring out his heart before God, he begs for mercy, for acceptance not based upon any special virtue. And with what does he do this? According to another midrash, in which the four species each correspond to a different part of the body—the heart, the spine, the eye—the willow corresponds to the lips. So at the very final sealing of the Divine judgment—after a month of awakening and reciting Selihot, and ten days of intense soul searching and even greater penitence, of fasting and confessing on Yom Kippur, of being busy with numerous mitzvot throughout Sukkot—we are ultimately thrown back on Hoshana Rabbah upon the simplest, most heartfelt emotions, pleading for mercy with our voices, and hoping to awaken God’s fatherly instincts, so to speak.