Three Festivals, One Meaning

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Succoth, Shemini Azereth and Simchat Torah:  Three Festivals, One Meaning


    The Torah teaches us in Shemoth (Exodus) 34:22 that we are to celebrate the harvest or, in the case of urban Jews like ourselves, the sustenance we receive each day. More than that, however, the Torah also requires that even as we celebrate we are to remember “that your generations should know that I (G’d) made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

    There are innumerable references in the Torah to the origin of the Jewish people as slaves in Egypt and their exodus from that land. Over and over again we are reminded at every occasion  that we came from slavery to freedom and Succoth is no exception.

     More than that, the requirement that all Jews, rich or poor, live in a Succah for a whole week emphasizes the democratic nature of Judaism and the people of Israel.

     It is in our democratic spirit that we find our strength. Israel is not ruled by one despot. Therefore Israel does not engage in unprovoked violence. It is in the interest of dictators and absolute tyrants and lifetime, self-appointed rulers that violence is used again and again against the “out group”, the enemy, the ‘other.” The designated outsider, the barbarian, the one excluded, the one shut out (ex-out and claudere-to shut) has been the Jewish people for 2,000 years. From 70 C.E. when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem to 1948 when Israel declared its independence once more, anyone who wished could victimize any Jew or all Jews in Muslim and Christian countries. That all changed in 1948 and in 1967 when all of Israel was liberated from foreign occupation. Now, at Succoth 2000 we are once more confronted by the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people with the demand that Israel return to slavery and subject itself to destruction again. Those who make these demands cannot adjust to the 52 year reality that Jews are not easy victims, that Jewish blood is not cheap, that anyone at all cannot brutalize and kill Jews without consequences.

      At Succoth time we are reminded that we came from slavery and lived in tents. We are also reminded, however, that we are slaves no longer and that we will never return to the second class status the enemies of Israel seek to impose on us.

     This determination to be free and to be “a light onto the nations” is heightened for us on Simchat Torah which occurs directly after Succoth and asks us to “rejoice in the Torah”. On that day we walk around the synagogue or even outside the walls of the “shul” in procession while carrying Torah scrolls in our arms. We read the last chapter and the first chapter of the Torah and signify thereby that the constitution of the Jewish people is the Torah and that it has permanence and continuity which cannot be interrupted but goes on forever.

     The Torah is a scroll containing the five Books of Moses. The concept “Torah” is more than that. It includes all the ethics, all the teachings and all the scriptures of Israel and the Jewish people. Torah includes right conduct as Jews perceive it. For example, the Talmud teaches in Baba Meziah that a Jew would rather jump into a fiery furnace than to humiliate another person. That admonition is also Torah. Therefore, as we celebrate on Simchat Torah, we celebrate our history, our laws, our ethics and our fraternity. On Simchat Torah we once more remember “Kol Yisrael Chaverim”. We emphasize in face of those who seek our destruction that all Jews are brethren and that Torah keeps us alive.

    The teachings of Torah protect us against all the disasters that so many men bring upon themselves. Torah true Jews need not engage in adultery with all its dreadful consequences. Torah true Jews have  no need to cheat others, or to spread gossip and lies. Torah true Jews do not need to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their fellow men nor do Torah true Jews despair. In fact, in our confused and anomic world, Torah is a guide, an explanation of our origin, our  present and our future as it anchors its followers to a 4,000 year history which gives our lives meaning.

   The great Jewish psychologist Viktor Frankl, who lived all his life in Vienna, wrote a book translated into English as Man’s Search for Meaning. This book was widely read and is still found in every library. Here Frankl discusses his survival of the Nazi camps and his challenge to his depressed patients to find something, anything that gives their lives meaning. Frankl shows that nothing is more important to us than the certainty that our life means something. No money, no income, no possession is more important than that, says Frankl. He also shows that large numbers of people search for meaning in their lives for years and find none. These people are in danger of suicide, alcoholism, adultery and other self-destructive behavior.

    Now for us who have the Torah all these dangers do not exist. For us, life has meaning. Because this is so, you will want to come to Temple Shaarey Zedek or any other synagogue of your choice next Saturday. Join us. Hear the reading of the Torah and participate with all of us in singing together “Aytz Chayim Hee, Lemachasikim Bo- It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it….” Try it. You will love it and it won’t cost you one cent.

   Shalom u’vracha.

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