Simchas Torah and modes of Simcha

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.

I. Holtz (from the alexander gallery)

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!

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

10 thoughts on “Simchas Torah and modes of Simcha”

  1. There was a ‘kohen’ walking around on Orrong Rd – Simchas Torah afternoon duchening ‘at’ anyone who would stop for him.
    Any idea who it was?
    Was he drunk and a living proof of the reason normal people duchen at Shachris on ST?

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    1. Ha Ha. Your comment was in my Spam folder. Is there something prophetic about that.
      Yes, this Cohen duchened at Shachris, and in an exalted state of inebriation as he walked home on Orrong Road, he recited the psukim from Birchas Cohanim to four babies who had missed it, and one mother and son.
      Furthermore, he checked and learned the Mishna Brura that morning to ensure that should he do such a thing, it would be okay.
      PS. If you are in need, come to my house. I’ll even bench you.

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  2. You mention various things in your piece.
    I wasn’t aware that there was a major drinking problem outside of chassidic circles, (I’m not talking about the youth who seem to be into the rather stupid and highly dangerous practice of binge drinking which has little to do with yiddishkeit at all.)
    For the life of me I can’t see the point of making kidduch on a glass of mashke – apart from the bravado issue – as it ruins the rest of the day as in one fell swoop a person is already at the point of ad d’lo yadah, and as you correctly point out that is a consideration for Purim what it has to do with Simchas Torah beats me.
    Regarding clapping, it would seem to be a shvus d’shvus (or similar) Clapping being a kin to a percussion instrument (a drum or tambourine) and so we get on to kli zemer. Since clapping, and especially as some do it with a shinui is usually spontaneous many (in the chassidic camp) are mekel.
    The current practice of Shmini Atseres and simchas Torah has received a lot of influence from the Chassidic world (especially Chabad), and some of the finer issues or concepts that we focus on have been relegated.
    See how Chabad celebrates Hoshana Rabbah compared to some other groups to see a very different focus.
    The Rebbe, OB”M tried to make Simchas Torah as inclusive as possible and always stressed the avodah of people dancing with the Torah over any aspect of learning. And of course the amount of time and energy invested into the hakofos compared to other places.
    Nowadays many shules indulge in hakofos that last many minutes and allow as many people to enjoy the rikkudim, dancing, singing and joyful exuberance and even over exuberance that is de rigeur today.

    So there has definitely been an evolution away from some points that used to be stressed in favour of all out dancing.
    If the flow of mashe is controlled, as has been the case for the last few years then everyone can enjoy themselves in the proper spirit of the Yom Tov (pun intended) and safely too.

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    1. The issue of duchening at Shachris wasn’t introduced after the Baal Shem Tov. I understand that there is no point for many/most to have kiddush on mashke. It’s a question of what you are used to and can tolerate. Certainly doing it for bravado is silly.
      I don’t know where you get your hetter for clapping. The Mishna Brura could only say that it was “Lekoved HaTorah” that they permitted it. Nobody claps with a shinui on Simchas Torah (I’d imagine the Brisker probably don’t clap!)
      I don’t know why you think Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah has been influenced by Chassidim. The Vilna Gaon danced with all his might, and you couldn’t prise the Sefer Torah away from him.
      The “avoda” of dancing with the Torah wasn’t an innovation of the last lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, surely.

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        1. ּBe that as it may, it might also imply using the same reasoning לכאורה that the גזירה against swimming isn’t germane either. Rav Hai Gaon, as quoted by the Maharik, claims that according to those who don’t simply pasken like this Tosfos, that the reason is due to the simcha of kovod hatorah. It is that which I don’t understand. Others, such as the R’ Shea Yanishker (R’ Yehoshua Klavan, a talmid of the Zekan Aron) holds that since it was permitted on Simchas Torah and is now a צורך מצווה because people get enthused by nigun and rikud, it is permitted on any Shabbos. The Minchas Elozor has a spirited defence of the practice of Chassidim. Interestingly, my reading of his Tshuva right at the end, seems to support my “question” so to speak. If it’s forbidden, it should be forbidden all the time, and if it’s permitted, it should be permitted all the time because he argues that those for whom it was permitted, even on Simchas Torah, were no the Am HoOretz, but rather the person for whom Simcha is genuinely burning inside them. He includes Chassidim in this category, and thereby defends (as is his way) the minhag of chassidim.

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