We have emerged from an intense month. Starting from the Ellul lead in, through Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, onto Succos/Hoshana Rabba and culminating in Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. I use the word culminating, because in a pristine existence, it is meant to be a culmination after which ויעקב הלך לדרכו, the newly inspired and invigorated Jew “goes on his way”.
In the days of old, when distractions of worldy existence were minor and inconsequential, and when tomorrow was simply a new day, it was arguably less of an issue to exult in finishing the leyning of the Torah. (It wasn’t always the case that we completed the Torah each year, but I digress).
I fondly remember dancing the night away at (the Religious Zionist) Mizrachi Shule only to arrive in the late evening at (the Chabad) Yeshivah Centre. We were young, restless and more daring back then and attempted to hijack the singing by introducing “Tziyon Halo Tishali” (a Satmar tune for those interested in trivia, and one which connotes sadness vis-a-vis Kinos on Tisha B’Av). This song, was akin to a Religious Zionist anthem, and we were determined to show that “we have arrived” and perhaps, just perhaps, we could all sing together. We got away with it, and the singing and dancing continued in the usual uplifting vein.
Rabbi Groner ז’ל together with other “elder” Chassidim, hosted all with a classic Farbrengen on Shmini Atzeres. Regaling us with stories of his youth, and more, we sat spell-bound for hours. Snippets of Chassidus were spoken, and anyone could pipe up and say something. Some interloping comments were interesting whilst others displayed the result of someone who was less able to hold their liquor. There was, however, a feeling of Achdus and inspiration.
In later years, Rabbi Groner would be wheeled in, but the Farbrengen continued as long as he had an ounce of strength left in his body. To be sure, there were other significant iconic Chassidim of yore, R’ Zalman, R’ Nochum, R’ Chaim Serebryanski, to name a few. It was like a pseudo-pantomine. They often criticised each other, under the influence of some Mashke (alcohol) and although we sometimes witnessed Rischa D’Orayso (heated interchange, for want of a better description) it was never acrimonious and, importantly, nobody pulled rank. Indeed, Chabad is a binary system as far as people go. There was the Rebbe and then the rest. It was, as in the beginning of Parshas Nitzavim: from the Rosheichem, the leaders, right through to the water drawers.
Mashke was a lubricant. It released the inhibitions. It facilitated an ability to dispense with the Tirdos (worries) of Olam Hazeh, the world we live in, and temporarily immerse in something more corporeal. In short, it was a means to an end. It was never an end of itself. Personally, I found that as I got older, Mashke helped me to “lose” the relative trivia that might be occupying my neurones and focus. It sounds contradictory, but it’s the reality. Mashke is sufficient, but it is by no means necessary, so to speak.
Fast forward. It’s Shmini Atzeres. Nusach Sfard and Chassidim perform Hakofos in Chutz La’aretz. There is a Kiddush (in the Chabad Yeshivah Shule where I have davened for eons) and many said kiddush (in the Succa) ostensibly to resume Hakaofos, somewhat liberated by the Mashke. In the last few years, I have felt decidedly uncomfortable going into the Succa for this preparatory libation. I do not refer to the issue of under age drinking. That is a separate item and not the topic in this post. The atmosphere of late, especially this year, seems to have become one more akin to a tavern/pub (lehavdil). Many never return to Hakofos, and the kiddush on mashke, has become an end, and not a means to an end. It is true, that my attention was also somewhat “distracted” as I was learning about Cohanim, Air Planes, Tumah, Moving Tents and floating carpets, and came to the realisation that I was close to clueless about the intricate Dinim of Tumas Ohel and Kelim, so I could be described as “preoccupied”.
The next day, as a Cohen, I duchened. I was somewhat psychologically affected by a Halachic question I had been reading from R’ Oshry ז’ל regarding a Cohen in the Ghetto whose voice box had been dismembered by the Nazis, may their memory be blotted forever. I felt strangely inspired to “give it my all”. I had a voice box. I wasn’t tormented. All I needed to do is have thoughts of אהבה and ask Hashem to give everyone everything they needed.
We then retired to the Shmini Atzeres farbrengen. I made kiddush, and then a little more, and waited with pregnant excitement to hear words of wisdom. It was probably me. All I heard was sloganeering and seemingly parroted thoughts that I had heard so many times before. There was no “git vort”, no “geshmake mayse”, not even a new Chassidic insight into the day we were meant to be only happy.
I began to question things being said our of sheer frustration. Perhaps if I hadn’t been exposed to the “good times” or had been more tolerant towards this somewhat more mediocre experience, I would have stayed silent.
I wanted to say something. It was to be my attempt to steer the ambient discussion towards some Tachlis. It had been on my mind during davening, and while there could have been an opportunity to do so in the good old days, and did, it sadly had no place anymore.
The shutters were up. The Arba Minim are meant to signify a unity and tolerance of all types of people and philosophies. Call it a symbol of Achdus or Unity, the personification of ואהבת לרעך כמוך. I felt that it was relegated to sloganeering. There was no action. One kind soul, attempted to assuage me
Isaac, if you were sitting in a Belzer Succah, do you think they would allow a non Belzer to say a Dvar Torah?
It was then that I realised he was right. This is, sadly, what we have become (in most places). We have compartmentalised to an extent where everyone thinks they have the (sole) mortgage on the truth. It’s my way or the highway. There seemingly can no longer be more than one path to serving Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Eventually I left.
As I walked home, I reflected on the words of the first Amshinover Rebbe, R’ Yaakov Dovid ז’ל
The Rebbe asked about the well-known Passuk in Tehillim:
הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד
Behold it is good and pleasant when brothers are sitting also together
The verse should have read:
הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים יחד
Behold it is good and pleasant when brothers are sitting together
The word גם—also—is superfluous and misplaced. The Rebbe explained that there are many occasions where brothers (and sisters) sit together. However, it’s only good and pleasant when they are also together, sharing a commonality.
I wondered how each original Rebbe, who was a student of the Magid of Mezeritch sat around the same table. They had nuanced differences in their outlooks. Were they together? Of course they were. In our day, each Chassidic group is basically in its own cocoon. The same is true of non Chassidim.
On Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, one would have thought that the uniting element, the Torah itself, would have the pulling power to create the גם יחד.
Maybe next year. I’ll be positive. There is no other choice.