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03.10.2019 19:49    Comments: 0    Categories: Holidays      Tags: torah  simchat  torah  holidays  oren  duvdevani  

Thoughts about Simhat Torah

When dealing with halakhic questions pertaining to hol ha-mo`ed, the intermediate days of the festival, the learned question that stands in the background always concerns the halakhic status of this strange cross-breed:  is it more weekday and mundane (Heb. hol), or is it more festival (Heb. mo`ed)?  The answer to this question has many halakhic implications.[1]

When, after the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles, we turn to discuss the nature of the eighth day and its spiritual message we must ask a similar question pertaining to the complex name of the holiday.  On the one hand, it is called Shemini Atzeret (the “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly”), yet on the other hand, Simhat Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah”).[2] What is the essential nature of this day?  What is the most dominant aspect, expressing the sanctity of the day?  The serious mood and grave atmosphere of Shemini Atzeret, somewhat reminiscent of the Day of Atonement, evoked by the prayer for rain and the Yizkor memorial service, or the abandon of wild dancing and release of joy which is Simhat Torah?[3]

In this article I shall attempt to connect the two, finding aspects of soul-searching in the dancing as well as the hakafot, and showing that dancing with the Torah scrolls also raises poignant questions about the essence of the day and our tie with the Torah in general.  To this end, I turn to a scene in the Bible that closely calls to mind Simhat Torah celebrations of our day:  the description of the how the Ark of the Lord was brought to the City of David (II Sam. 6:12, 14-15, 20-23):

It was reported to King David:  “The Lord has blessed Obed-edom’s house and all that belongs to him because of the Ark of G‑d.”  Thereupon David went and brought up the Ark of G‑d from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David, amid rejoicing…David whirled with all his might before the Lord; David was girt with a linen ephod.  Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn.  As the Ark of the Lord entered the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord; and she despised him for it…David went home to greet his household.  And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today—exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!”  David answered Michal, “It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel!  I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored.”  So to her dying day Michal daughter of Saul had no children.

Every year on Simhat Torah this scene rises up before my eyes:  David dancing before the Ark and Michal looking through the window and feeling contempt for him in her heart.  Difficult questions are raised by this story:  Why does Michal feel contempt for David?  Why is David so badly hurt and insulted by Michal’s words, and why is Michal punished so severely?  The answer to these questions might lie in a certain phrase which recurs time after time in this brief narrative.

Michal was David’s first wife, the wife of his youth.  She risked her life for his sake and rescued him from her father’s sword, yet here Scripture insists on viewing things from a different angle.  Scripture does not call Michal “David’s wife,” rather “Saul’s daughter.”

This is a hair-raising statement.  At this point in time Michal and David had been married many years, yet Michal did not consider herself “David’s wife,” rather “Saul’s daughter.”  That is how Scripture viewed her, and apparently also how the people viewed her, and most regrettably how David and Michal themselves felt, as well.

Michal’s contempt for David, the harsh words between them, enfolds not only a dreadful personal tragedy of ruined marital relations, but also an expression of the great chasm between the House of Saul and the House of David, between two ways of leadership among the Israelites.  It seems that in this story even Scripture itself asks us to choose our way, to choose between Michal and David.

Looking at Saul as monarch, on the one hand, we see throughout his reign boundless love and sincere, true and deep concern for the people of Israel; Saul cared about his people and their honor.  On the other hand, Saul’s reign had an element of self-destructive power, founded in Saul’s refusal throughout to accept aid, direction and guidance from the institution of the prophets, from Samuel.  Throughout his reign Saul viewed Samuel as a threat, as an aged rabbi seeking through the “advice of the Torah” to interfere in political and military affairs and influence events.  In other words, Saul was prepared to respect Samuel, but only to a certain point.  Beyond that point, Saul maintained, were spheres which belonged purely to the secular realm.  The extremist position of the House of Saul was one of outlook, just like Michal looking out of the window.  There were areas that belonged in the “religious” realm, where the monarchy had no right to speak out, just as there were other, secular, areas where prophecy had no right to speak out or interfere.

David, dressed in a linen ephod and whirling and dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, comes out in stark contrast to such an approach.  The linen ephod which he was wearing is not a marginal detail.  In the world of the beginnings of the monarchy in the Book of Samuel a linen ephod was a highly significant symbol:  “Samuel was engaged in the service of the Lord as an attendant, girded with a linen ephod” (I Sam. 2:18).  When David girded himself with a linen ephod he was coming out with a clear declaration:  I aspire to a kingship that accepts inspiration from the holy, from the institution of prophecy.  But in the eyes of Michal, loyal to the heritage of her father, bringing the Ark to the city where the king’s palace stood, to the political nerve-center of the Jewish state, was an atrocious and horrifying idea, practically undermining the honor and authority of the monarchy.

Rabbi Joseph-Dov Soloveitchik used to say that relations between the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionism can be compared to the relations between Joseph and his brothers.[4] Yet on more than one occasion, precisely on such an evening when we dance with the Torah scrolls, the sad thought creeps up that relations between us and the general public that does not follow the ways of the Torah and its commandments can actually be compared to the relations between David and Michal.  While we whirl and dance before the Torah, one often has the feeling that “Michal” is spurning us in her heart, distancing herself from us, fearful of us.  Surely she respects and appreciates the Ark of the Covenant, but the thought that what the Ark of the Covenant contains might be relevant and have something to say about public affairs here and now in Israel—such a thought arouses anger, fear, and contempt in “Michal.”

Like David, I feel insulted and hurt, I feel misunderstood.  In my heart I know that despite all the love I feel towards “Michal,” if the values of the Torah do not have a place of respect on the agenda of the State of Israel, it spells demise, for “to her dying day Michal daughter of Saul had no children.”

So joining Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly, similar in its nature to the Day of Atonement, with Simhat Torah leads us to do the same soul-reckoning that arises from the passage in the Book of Samuel.  On such nights, as we dance with the Torah scrolls, more than once I have asked myself, whom do we resemble more?  Michal, or David?  Do we truly think that the scrolls in the Ark have a connection with the way we drive on the roads, with how we stand in line in the supermarket, with how we do business or how we treat our spouse or our children as they grow up?

Can we change the attitude of “Michal,” her vantage point towards us and the Torah in general?  I am optimistic and believe we can.  We can reach a state where the secular community will understand that notwithstanding their secularism they must be attentive to the guidance in values given by the Torah and to what it has to say to the Israeli public.  There are ways to accomplish this.  The first step, it seems, would be just like David—not to be ashamed to express our love of the Torah outwardly, our pride about the way of life we have chosen to follow and in which we have chosen to educate our children:  “I will dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored.”

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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