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Simchat Torah 5764-2003

“Celebrating Torah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Because of the festivals of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we do not read the normal Torah portion this week. Instead, on Sunday, October 19th we complete the annual cycle of reading the entire five books of the Torah, concluding with parashat V’zot Habracha. We immediately begin the new cycle, reading the beginning of parashat Bereishith. The fact that we again begin the Torah cycle on the same day that the Torah is completed, underscores the centrality of continuity–that we dare not stop studying Torah, indeed we begin afresh immediately on the heels of concluding the Torah.

While the Torah certainly contains much legal and narrative information, the Torah is not a mere academic document. As we say in the daily evening prayer: “Kee haim cha’yay’noo v’oh’rech ya’may’noo ooh’va’hem neh’heh’geh yo’mom v’lai’lah,” It [the Torah] is our lifeblood and the length of our days, and upon it we shall meditate day and night! Torah is truly the elixir of Jewish life and Jewish living. Survival is simply impossible for the Jewish people without Torah. It is what refreshes us, sustains us and guides us, empowering us to continue living as Jews with enthusiasm and purpose.

Perhaps more than any other person in our generation, it was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the late Rosh Yeshiva (head teacher) of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic School, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, who most lyrically and poetically described the beauty of Torah study. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s passing, but in the forty years that he served as Rosh Yeshiva he taught thousands of students and inspired many tens of thousands with lectures and tapes.

So, for instance, Rabbi Soloveitchik recalled that as a young child of seven or eight he would lie in bed at night and listen to his father studying with his students in the adjoining room, debating over a portion in the Talmud or a section of the Code of Maimonides. He tells how exciting it was — like a real battle. But in the end, Maimonides would always prevail. Some children play with toy soldiers, Rabbi Soloveitchik played with living images of the ancient rabbis and fantasized about them.

One night, after struggling with a particularly difficult passage, he heard his father, for the first time, express defeat, and announce that the portion of the Code of Maimonides that they had been studying simply did not make sense. Maimonides had been vanquished. He had been defeated! Terribly upset, the young child, Joseph Ber, jumped out of bed, ran to his mother, and began crying, “Mommy, mommy, Maimonides has been defeated!” His mother comforted him and said: “Don’t worry. Your father and the students will continue to study. They’ll continue to argue, in order to try to understand the portion, and eventually Maimonides will prevail. And if not, when you grow up, you will study hard in order to elucidate this problem and you will show how Maimonides is truly correct!”

It is this unusual nurturing that allows Torah to assume the most central place in Jewish life, and to play a most potent role in the battle for Jewish survival.

On April 1, 1973, Rabbi Soloveitchik was recorded making impromptu remarks at a siyum, a celebration marking the conclusion of study of a portion of a Talmudic tractate, in which he expressed how deep is the Jew’s love for the study of Torah. Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out that every morning Jews recite the blessing: “Blessed art thou, Lord, our G-d, king of the universe, who has commanded us with His commandments to be involved, “La’asok,” in the words of Torah. He notes that Tosafot (commentators on the Talmudic text) ask why Jews make this Torah blessing for learning Torah only once in the morning and it suffices for the rest of the day, whereas most blessings are repeated each time a particular mitzvah is performed. They answer that the verse in Joshua 1:8 “V’hah’gee’ta bo yo’mam va’lai’lah,” underscores that Talmud Torah is a continuous mitzvah, there is no such thing as breaking one’s connection with Torah during the day.

In his typically brilliant fashion, Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that people posses two types of awarenesses. There is “acute” awareness and there is “latent” awareness. Even though one is engaged in other matters, a person can still be conscious of those things that are most vital and important.

When the mother plays with her child she experiences acute awareness. But even when the mother is distracted by some other activity, there is always a natural latent awareness of her child’s existence. In a mother’s relationship with her child, there is no such thing as “out-of-sight, out-of-mind”.

So, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is it true of Torah. For the Jew who is engaged in Torah there is always a cognitive awareness. That is why when we complete a tractate in the Talmud we pronounce the nostalgic phrase: “Hadran Alach,” we shall return to you, we will never abandon you. And so it is on Simchat Torah, as soon as we complete the cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses, we begin again, because Jews can not survive without affirming our continuous commitment to Torah. Clearly, the Torah is always present in our latent consciousnesses.

We pray that during the current holiday our people’s bond with Torah–that great preserver of Jewish life–will be strengthened, and that all the blessings of G-d found in the Torah will be showered upon us.

We wish you all a wonderful and joyous Sukkot holiday.

May you be blessed.

(“On the Love of Torah: Impromptu Remarks at a Siyum” found in Shiurei HaRav, a conspectus of public lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. 1974 pp.102-104.)