Reflections on Simchat Torah
If there is one word that could sum up my holiday experience, it would be this one.
I have not stayed home for Simchat Torah for a few years now, so I decided to stay home this year to spend time with my family. However, I was quickly reminded why in past years I had been so eager to run away from home for this holiday.
Upon further reflecting on the events of this past Simchat Torah, I was actually quite surprised at my initial shock of what took place. What I am about to describe to you occurred in my shul this past year, and as I recall quite clearly, has occurred all the years that I have been home for this holiday. I am quite disappointed in myself for having the naivety to believe that this year would be any better.
As Hakafos began, there were a couple of guys standing in the center of the shul who tried to get the singing and dancing started, but most people were simply uninterested. Those in high school and college were having a good time fraternizing with the opposite gender. The young married couples were getting their exercise chasing their kids around shul. The middle-aged people were standing around discussing work. And the old people were standing menacingly on the side, as they just wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. One could barely make out the sounds of “Toras Hashem Temimah” amidst all the chatter and chaos.
I would say that I attend a typical Modern Orthodox shul in a neighborhood which is heavily populated by religious Jews in the Metropolitan area (or “in-town”, as some in YU might call it, but to be fair, I find that “in-town” has a very condescending connotation to it, and thus I will refrain from using it). There is a simple question that we need to ask ourselves: How could it be that in the average Modern Orthodox shul the festivities of Simchat Torah are depressingly dry and lifeless?
There is an important point to consider when thinking about this matter. Many of the people described earlier as being overall indifferent to the festivities of Simchat Torah are admirably dedicated to being religious Jews. Many rise early in the morning to study Daf Yomi. Many studied in Yeshivot, not limited to, but certainly heavily, our very own Yeshiva University. Many are even musmachim of our own very fine rabbinical school. Intellectually, people are strongly connected to religious observance. But where is the passion?
The same can be said of our student community here on the Wilf Campus. While the inspiring sounds of Torah learning can be heard both day and night in our various Batei Midrash, and the quality and quantity of Rabbeim here are probably unsurpassed anywhere else, something is missing. While there is usually a strong presence of students on campus for the Yamim Nora’im, the other parts of the year could use some improvement. Why is there no Simchat Torah program here on Simchat Torah? Why are the dorms closed? Most Yeshivot in the world are open for Simchat Torah, why is ours not?
What about the typical Shabbos on campus? While there are some weeks that there is a strong contingent of students here, the typical week is pretty empty. Unfortunately, when conversing with fellow students regarding their Shabbos plans, the assumption typically is that everyone is going out, and it is a chiddush if one says he is staying in. Additionally, he is met with gasps of horror if he says that he will be consuming his meals, brace yourself, in the cafeteria (apologies to those who just choked on what they were eating, fell into a state of unconsciousness due to shock, or suffered a heart attack).
There are a couple of points that I must concede. Simchat Torah is a time in which Yeshiva University tries to “share the wealth” by sending various Rabbeim to speak in different places as well as promoting Torah Tours, a program that sends students to small Jewish communities to liven them up for the holiday. I can personally attest to the importance of such a program, as I participated in Torah Tours last year and witnessed with my own eyes the impact that I had on the community I visited. Nevertheless, the existence of the Torah Tours should not preclude Yeshiva University from being open for Simchat Torah.
Additionally, it would be foolish of me to ignore the reality that everyone needs to get out every now and then. Everyone needs some fresh air, a home-cooked meal, and a good night’s rest in his own comfortable bed (which to be frank, I did not appreciate until having returned to YU after Simchat Torah). Nevertheless, there is something wrong with the general attitude that exists in YU regarding staying in for Shabbos.
I of course am not the first one to point to the lack of passion that unfortunately exists within our communities. It is appropriate in this context to quote Rav Soloveitchik about the loss of the “Erev Shabbat Jew.”
"Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of Shabbat.” True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat... But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten “erev Shabbat” (eve of the Sabbath). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no “erev Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths - but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart! (On Repentance, pp. 97-98)
I hope that this article will generate conversation on campus regarding this issue. I hope that people will submit additional articles discussing their point of view on this matter.
Photo Caption: Torah Scroll
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