What perplexes non-Jews about Simchas Torah?
The Other Group
Prison is never a comfortable place for any human being, and especially for a Jew. This becomes even more true during the holiday season. For example, when the holiday of Sukkot approaches, every Jew can easily obtain a lulav, etrog and sukkah, but for a Jew in prison, it takes hard work and careful planning.
In the United States, prisons are obligated to ensure that every prisoner has the ability to live according to his faith and observe his religion. The chaplain of every prison is responsible for every prisoner’s religious needs; he will ensure that there is a lulav and etrog set for the Jewish inmates, and if requested, he will even arrange a Sukkah.
In the recently published book by Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, he relates his experiences in prison on Sukkos and Simchas Torah.
The chaplain, as required, obtained a lulav and etrog set for the holiday. However, for many prisoners, it was their first time observing this custom and they didn’t know that it was necessary to handle it delicately. It was possible that by the time everyone had a chance to recite the blessing, it would no longer be kosher.
He therefore requested a set of his own. The prison approved his request, and he received his personal set. When other prisoners saw that he had received a personal set, they requested their own, and they were approved as well. He was gratified that he had the opportunity to spread the mitzvah in that fashion. Also, the prison built them a sukkah, where they would daven, eat and celebrate together.
However, life always has its surprises. After everything was already set for the holiday, a new problem arose. In United States prisons, every inmate has the right to declare which religion he belongs to, and inmates often utilize this to join the religion that has the most benefits. Due to the benefits of kosher food and Jewish holidays, prisoners often declare themselves as Jewish or as members of groups that observe Jewish customs.
In his prison, there was one similar group, who would observe the Sabbath and receive all the benefits of the Jewish group. Each Shabbat they received grape juice and Challah, each holiday they received holiday foods, and each Passover they received matzo and a full seder.
When the holiday of Sukkot came around, they demanded a Sukkah as well. After all, sitting in the open air was definitely better than being cooped up in a cell. In this case, they would also have the opportunity to bring their food and eat it outside the set eating areas — something which would otherwise never be possible.
As it turned out, this group would often arrive to eat in the Sukkah at the same time the Jews were observing Sukkot in the Sukkah as well. They would bring their non-kosher food, and the aroma would waft through the entire sukkah. When this group noticed that the Jews received a lulav and etrog set, they demanded a set of their own. They would watch the Jews observe the custom, and then attempt to copy them, often to humorous effect.
Needless to say, the presence of that group ruined much of the meager joy they tried to have and robbed them of the short opportunity to celebrate together in an intimate, comfortable way.
Then came Simchas Torah.
The small Jewish group gathered in the Sukkah to pray and hold Hakafos on the evening of Shemini Atzeres. As Rabbi Rubashkin led the services, he suddenly heard noise. Lifting his eyes, he saw one of the members of the other group wearing a tallis, holding a lulav and yelling all sorts of gibberish, mimicking their prayer service.
Ignoring him, the Jewish group continued with the prayers. They recited the verses of Atah Hareisa, took out the Torah scroll, and honored Rabbi Rubashkin with the first Hakafa. Crying out with all his heart, he recited, “Ana Hashem, Hoshiah Na…” and everyone followed suit.
And then, they began to sing and dance and celebrate with tremendous joy.
In the corner of his eye, Rabbi Rubashkin notice a fascinating sight: the members of the other group were standing silently, frozen, watching the dancing of the Jewish group in shock. Soon, one of the leaders got up and left, and the rest of them followed suit, quietly filing out of the Sukkah (The Inside Story 489).
Study, Occupy, and Love
What was behind this reaction? Why were they so shocked by the sight of the singing and dancing of Hakafos?
There are three levels to the relationship of a Jewish person with the Torah.
The first is, “Lomdei Toratecha,” the fact that we are the students of the Torah. Each morning, in the second blessing of Birchas Hatorah, we ask that we be among “those who study Torah for its own sake” — simply to have the merit of studying Torah.
The second level is, “Oskei Toratecha.” Very often, Jewish writings describe the act of Torah study as “being occupied with Torah.” In Pirkei Avos, it speaks about “those who do not occupy themselves with Torah” (6:2), and in the Chanukah prayer, we thank G-d for delivering “the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.”
What is unique about that description? As the Rebbe explains, “When someone has an business, he doesn’t closet himself at home and wait for someone to knock down the door and ask to do business with him. To the contrary, he seeks to advertise his services. Likewise, when someone is occupied with Torah, he doesn’t suffice with studying it for himself . . . he teaches it to others . . . and does his best to spread it all around” (Toras Menachem vol. 34 pg. 173).
The third level is “Ohavei Toratecha.” Each day, right before we conclude the prayer service with Aleinu, we read a teaching of the sages: “Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Chanina said: Torah scholars increased peace in the world.” We continue by reciting a verse: “Those who love your Torah have abundant peace, and there is no stumbling for them.”
The Rebbe raises a question: “What connection is there between love, an emotion, and Torah, which is an intellectual endeavor? Why don’t we praise those who learn, know or occupy themselves with Torah? Why love?”
The Rebbe answers:
“It is only when you are a true lover of Torah — when you harbor an intense and powerful love for G-d’s wisdom — that you can avoid stumbling” (Toras Menachem vol. 74 pg. 303).
In simple terms:
Some people are “students of the Torah.” They approach the study of Torah without enthusiasm; they fulfill their obligation and feel content with that — and they approach the commandments in a similar manner. A person on a higher spiritual level will occupy himself with Torah. He is engaged with and occupied by his Judaism (“it refers not only to Torah study but also to all mitzvot as well” — Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 pg. 210). This person’s worship looks totally different; he makes Judaism his business. And the highest level is those who love the Torah: those who truly love the Torah will sacrifice everything to remain connected to it.
The lowest level, the “students of the Torah,” don’t need to be Jewish. Non-Jews are also obligated to study the Torah —the sections of the seven Noahide laws which pertain to them. However, only Jews could be “occupied with Torah.” Although non-Jews are commanded to study their laws, the concept of being fully engrossed in Torah does not apply to them. (Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 pg. 212). But the highest level, again, is those who love the Torah. That’s definitely something that only a Jew could experience.
On Sukkot, the non-Jewish inmates were able to imitate the customs of lulav and Sukkah; it was not that difficult at all. But when Simchas Torah arrived, everything changed. They couldn’t possibly connect or imitate the genuine joy and celebration of Hakafos. That was too much for them.
I haven’t seen any nation dance with their laws. I never saw an American dance with the Constitution; he respects it and takes pride in it, but why in the world would he dance with it? This is true of every other nation as well. Only the Jewish people, those who love G-d’s Torah, are capable of dancing with their Torah.
It is interesting to note that each morning, we begin by praying to be “the students of the Torah.” In the middle of the prayer, in the section added on Chanukah, we speak about “those who are occupied with your Torah.” But, by the end of the prayer, we reached the level of “those who love your Torah.”
Today, we begin the Torah anew. The joy of the new beginning is the joy of those who love the Torah — those who are excited about G-d’s Torah and are thrilled by it. It is those Jews — the lovers of your Torah — who will always remain Jewish. As the saying goes, “Love will prevail.”
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