By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
What has Simchat Torah got to do with Teshuvah? One could be forgiven for thinking that by the time we reach Simchat Torah, Teshuvah, return, is over and done. The serious subjects of reflection, contrition and repentance have ended with the close of Yom Kippur or at the latest with the brief revisit to its themes and melodies on the morning of Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. Now we are free to rejoice.
But Teshuvah is integral not just to the ‘awesome’ aspect of the Days of Awe, but also to the joy of Sukkot which follows. The focus in Teshuvah is rightly placed on the most challenging stages in the journey of repentance: confronting our faults, acknowledging our sins, apologising to those we have hurt, endeavouring to let go of feelings of anger and revenge and forgive others in our own turn, and the determination not simply to revert to our previous habits and repeat what we have done wrong, but to deepen our sensitivity, refine our character and change our habitual conduct.
Yet Teshuvah does not refer only to the path of remorse. The word literally means ‘return’ and the entire process of Teshuvah is founded on the belief that we can rediscover our innocence, that guilt is rarely beyond expiation, that the heart and conscience do not become indelibly tainted and that life always holds the possibility of beginning anew. We may lose our naivety, but innocence is not beyond recapture.
This is beautifully expressed in the verse which follows the Shema Kolenu on Yom Kippur; after asking God to hear our supplications and have mercy on us, we say ‘Chadesh yamenu kekedem – Renew our days as of old’. The Talmud debates to what period of time this restoration refers, and includes the view that it means a return to the harmony of the Garden of Eden itself.
The return to innocence is of the essence of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. The Sukkah itself can be understood to represent an ideal world like the dream of Eden. In making a booth of branches and leaves and decorating it with fruits we express our respect for nature and our awareness of our dependence on it. In living in the Sukkah in relative simplicity we reduce the divisions between rich and poor. In trusting to its sometimes dubious walls and thin roof, we place ourselves, in the words of the Zohar, ‘betsila de’mehemanuta in the protective shade of faith’, showing that we put our ultimate trust not in thick walls, divisive barriers and power, but in the protection of God, which will be spread ‘over us, over all Israel’ and we should add, ‘over all creation’. I am always happy when birds, or even a passing fox, comes into our Sukkah. It makes me feel a small step closer to the time envisioned by Isaiah when we ‘shall not hurt or destroy’, when harmony with each other and with nature will be restored, and when God will ‘renew our days as of old’.
Sukkot itself culminates in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The former has no specific distinctive commandments; the Hasidic mystics understood this to be because there is no need for further instructions. It is like those moments in a relationship when no words, certainly no critical comments, are needed, because there is complete at-oneness of heart and spirit. Simchat Torah, with its added practice of completing and recommencing the annual reading of the Torah, moves from quiet joy into the noisy, festive, collective celebration. There are few expressions of happiness as all-embracing as song and dance.
In terms of the cycle of the Torah, we have returned to the beginning, we are indeed back at Eden (if only briefly), with the hope, founded on the inner work of recognition and contrition in which we have engaged over the previous weeks, that we can truly start again, avoid at least some of the same mistakes and be more faithful to our responsibilities towards each other, all of nature and the ultimate vision of a harmonious, redeemed world.
Many of the songs chosen for Simchat Torah express this dream. ‘Am Israel chai – the people of Israel lives (with its faith and hope intact); ‘Od yavo shalom alenu – Peace will yet arrive’ and even ‘Mashiach, mashiach, mashiach’ – with its trust in eventual redemption.
The danger is that with the close of Yom Kippur we simply return to our daily round, relieved, as we perhaps inevitably are to some degree, that the long, challenging day is over. Now we can get back to normal, just the same as before.
But that is certainly not the plan. The idea is that we renew our determination to make the world different. This year as we read the Torah we will live by it more truly, we will do more to love our neighbour, the stranger and God, and also to love and care for those close to us, and for our own heart and conscience. We will be more faithful to our understanding of whom and what we could be, as individuals, as a people and as humanity itself.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism and rabbi of New North London Synagogue.