Yes, it’s a time when we are all enjoined to be happy. It’s not just that we have to be happy. There are even curious leniencies that the Rabbis permitted. Duchening at Shachris is a concession. Chazal clearly realised that תפסת מרובה לא תפסת and that if they didn’t set ברכת כהנים in the morning, there would unlikely be any proper Duchening at Mussaf. Why didn’t Chazal stick to their guns, so to speak? Why didn’t they simply say that drinking to a point of שכרות (not עד דלא ידע) was strictly forbidden and instead encourage a nice kiddush/seuda after davening albeit with more alcohol than usual?
Furthermore, according to non Chassidic Poskim, clapping (and even dancing) are forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Clapping in particular is permitted on Simchas Torah? Why? It seems this is for the כבוד התורה? It was enacted at the time of the Geonim. Again, I don’t understand. If clapping on Yom Tov is forbidden, why permit it on Simchas Torah? It makes no sense to me. I’d be more than pleased to understand the limits under which halachic considerations seem to be allowed to be relaxed as a result of the dictum of והיית אך שמח.
I have been reading a wonderful set of essays about the Yomim Tovim from Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm. His delicious prose and profound insights never cease to regale me. This year, I read an essay on Shmini Atzeres. I mentioned it briefly at our table on Shmini Atzeres evening. Rabbi Lamm asks why specifically this Yom Tov had the notion of unadulterated Simcha, such that אך connotes an increase of Simcha as opposed to the usual meaning of אך which is a reduction.
He goes onto quote an insightful Gemora in Yoma 21a where as soon as Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah had concluded, everyone was petrified. They were worried about the גשמים. Rain signified פרנסה, the ability for someone to make a living and keep the proverbial clock ticking at home. All eyes were on the smoke of the מערכה; the smoke from the wood which would burn the sacrifices. The particular direction of the wind at the end of Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, signified the גשמיות fortunes that were to be ushered in. Would they be good for the poor or the rich? Would it be bad for everyone or good for everyone?
According to Rabbi Lamm, the effective culmination of Tishrei, where we immersed ourselves so deeply in עבודת התפילה and in תשובה and fasting was suddenly if not hesitatingly upon us. Hashem had said “stick around for another day … but on one condition, you must be happy“. With the winds soon to advise us whether our prayers had been answered, who could be happy? Every human mind would be worried. What will happen? Was I listened to or have I been consigned to some other non descript path. Would I have נחת and good health, or would things God forbid not seem to be so great. The fear of the unknown is a palpable one.
When I daven for the Amud, I have always been wracked with guilt. Will I be an adequate Shliach Tzibbur? On Shmini Atzeres, it’s all over. The deed is done. We’ve all passed כבני מרון. The downturn potentially begins. ויעקב הלך לדרכו. Hashem says ’No’. He says, be happy. Delight in my Torah. Make my Torah happy through your enacting its commands.
Ah, but would it be so easy.
This year, I quixotically watched people circumvolve while brandishing a Torah. Smiles on some faces, while others robotically gyrated, occasionally exalting in niggun. Were they happy? Truly happy? Were they going through the motions, or was it just me? Perhaps it was indeed me who was thinking too deeply and allowing myself not to let go. Was I in a state of spiritual suspension? Why wasn’t I jumping out of my skin to dance? Sure, when I was younger I danced like there was no tomorrow. No doubt, I learned more Torah than I do now, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I still learn, though. I still like nothing more than to grab a Sefer and immerse myself in an ענין of Torah. I love it. I always will. So, what has changed. Life’s good!
Rabbi Lamm notes that if the Torah commands happiness, then this must mean that happiness is not at all dependent on the direction of the smoke. It is an inner state. It doesn’t matter whether the extrinsic reality will turn out to be good. It must be, that happiness is an internal state of achievement, something that one can reach by somehow locking out and extinguishing the portion of one’s state of mind that seems utterly subservient to the external; to the existential reality of our existence and all that goes with it.
Society recognises this internal friction and electricity. It calls it stress. Stress comes from something external (unless it’s a chemically induced condition). Stress is treated in at least two ways. One way is ingest a medically indicated dulling agent. By dulling our reaction to stress, we are able to refocus on what matters and deal with the here and now. Another method in vogue is known as mindfulness. It borrows ideas of buddhist relaxation and seeks to find a cognitive dissonance from negative (stressful) thoughts and then suffusing these with positive notions. Again, the idea is to somehow remove the negative barriers. In a Jewish context, the source and meaning behind positive notions is more natural and substantial.
Having a few לחיים’ס on Simchas Torah has always helped me to divest myself of every bit of hindrance that could envelop my neurones and prevent me from watching the dancing in a mechanistic manner or participating in gratuitous robotic gyrations together with a plastic grin. Is that why Chazal told me to Duchen at Shachris and allowed me to clap? That’s not to say that I, nor anyone else, countenances wanton drunkenness or alcohol abuse. Nor am I saying that this is for everyone, or even for the majority of people. For me, however, it’s a release. It frees me to not focus on externals. It allows me to not pivot on the “direction of the wind” at the conclusion of Simchas Torah. It’s a crescendo; the last movement of the symphony, if you will, a spiritual journey of uplifting, that started at Slichos, through Rosh Hashono, Yom Kippur, Hoshana Raba, concluding with Succos.
To the rest of you who can divest yourselves of worldly stress without any agent and reach אך שמח on your own, well done!