After 3 weeks of chagim (festivals), starting off with the solemn Rosh Hashana, continuing on through the fast day of Yom Kippur, followed closely by Sukkot, we are now hurtling straight into the last day of the festive season: Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). It is a day that is combined with Shemini Atzeret in Israel, whereas outside Israel they celebrate over 2 days, with Shemini Atzeret first, and Simchat Torah on the next day, for reasons to be found here.
In practice it would make more sense to have the festival split over two days because the two parts of so completely different in character. Shemini Atzeret is festive yet serious, with the Yizkor prayer and Tefilat Geshem (more on that here).
Simchat Torah is pure joy, and in Israel it always feels very strange to me to make the sudden switch from the happiness and jollity to the serious prayers of Shemini Atzeret during the Musaf prayers.
Yet I suppose that reflects the complexity of Israeli society as a whole, especially as we have seen these past few days with the joyful release of Gilad Shalit combined with the fear of renewed terror from the freed terrorists.
Getting back to the festival, tonight we will all be gathering in shul and the excitement of the day is something I still remember from my own childhood. All the Torah scrolls will be removed from the Aron Hakodesh and distributed to congregants. Then the singing and dancing commences, with the Torah scrolls being danced round the shul in 7 hakafot; between each hakafah the Torahs are handed to other members. During the dancing sweets are handed out to the children who dance with their fathers holding flags (and bags to hold the sweets!).
Tomorrow morning, after morning services the dancing with the Torah scrolls is repeated, followed by the reading of the last portion of the Torah: Zot Habracha (“this is the blessing”), the blessing given by Moshe to the Children of Israel just before his death. The portion is read over and over (and over!) until every single member of the shul has been given an aliya. At that stage all the children are called up under a Chuppah, and they recite the Hamalach Hagoel prayer together with Shema Yisrael. It is an extremely exciting yet moving experience and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
There are several other customs on Simchat Torah: one person is nominated to be Chatan Torah, another to be Chatan Bereishit.
At the end of all the Torah readings, the Chatan Bereishit starts the Torah reading right from the beginning by reading the first chapters of Bereishit, to show how happy we are to begin the cycle again.
Once all these festivities are over, the atmosphere takes a sudden turn and we say Yizkor, followed by Tefilat Geshem.
And when the Musaf prayer is over we stagger home for lunch!
Chag Sameach everyone!