This piece is part of the #TorahForTheResistance series. Read other #TorahForTheResistance pieces here.
I wish I could remember the first time I laughed after 9/11. Or after the death of a loved one. Or after last year’s election. But I can’t. All I can remember is the feeling that goes along with that brief moment of joy: guilt. Guilt that I could laugh when nothing seemed funny. Guilt that I was able to find happiness amidst tragedy. Guilt that I could forget while so many other people were suffering so deeply. And that I can’t remember those first moments of joy makes me scared. Have I become so numb to human suffering that when hurricanes devastate huge swaths of our country and the caribbean or when 58 people are mercilessly slaughtered by gunfire, it feels like just another day of news? Has tragedy become so routine that all it is is the latest news cycle?
We are coming to a close of this year’s holiday season. And this year, as is true every year, we are commanded to be happy. We are told that Sukkot is zman simchateinu, the time of our joy. And what’s more, our final holiday of the season is called Simchat Torah (simcha meaning joy or happiness). It is the holiday of rejoicing of, or with, the Torah.
The Torah (Deut. 16:14-15) goes so far as to command us to rejoice in this season:
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ…וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ.
.You shall rejoice in your festival…and you shall have nothing but joy.
It is a holiday where we sing joyous songs while dancing with the sifrei Torah in order to celebrate finishing one whole reading of the Torah and transition back to the beginning. As a kid, I remember Simchat Torah as the holiday where my main mission was to distract my dad from his Torah reading in order to make him laugh. But this year, it feels hard to imagine taking an entire day and dedicating it to the act of rejoicing.
There is a midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (39:6) that reads as follows:
אִם עוֹלָם אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ אֵין דִּין, וְאִם דִּין אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ אֵין עוֹלָם, וּמָה אַתָּה תּוֹפֵשׂ חֶבֶל בִּתְרֵין רֵאשִׁין, אַתְּ בָּעֵי עָלְמָא וּבָעֵי דִינָא, סַב לָךְ חָדָא מִנַּיְיהוּ, וְאִם לֵית אַתְּ מְוַתֵּר צִבְחַר, לֵית עָלְמָא יָכוֹל קָאֵים.
If you desire the world to endure, there can be no absolute justice, while if you desire absolute justice, the world cannot endure, yet you would hold the cord by both ends, desiring both the world and absolute justice. Unless you forget a little, the world cannot endure.
According to this midrash, the only way the world can survive is if we back off of the idea of absoluteness just a little bit. Our calendar starts our holiday season with Tisha B’av, a day dedicated to sadness and mourning and ends our season with the height of happiness, Simchat Torah. The vast majority of the time, our task is to exist somewhere in between those two ends of the cord. Because it is not sustainable to live life in a constant state of despair and it is not responsible, this midrash asserts, to ignore the oppression of the world around us.
This Simchat Torah, I propose that we live in and inhabit this tension: unless we are able to find joy, we will be unable to sustain ourselves. Unless we can find happiness and lightheartedness, we will burn out. Unless we can let ourselves laugh, we will not be able to pick ourselves up and carry on. And unless we can find a way to sing in the midst of brokenness and dance while we hurt, we will never make it to the other side. Simchat Torah gives us the relief we need to put one foot in front of the other and work harder than we ever have before.