Holiday Reflections: Simchat Torah

| October 8, 2009

The Holiday:
Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday marking the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle.

At the conclusion of the seven-day Sukkot holiday, Jews around the world usher in another wonderful celebration:  the two-day festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.  In Israel, as well as in the Diaspora Reform Jewish community, these are compressed into one day.

Shemini Atzeret, which means “the eighth day of retention,” comes immediately on the heels of Sukkot, though it is a distinct holiday.  Many Jews continue to sit in their sukkah, but the lulav and etrog are no longer waved.  On Shemini Atzeret, which falls at the beginning of the rainy season, a special prayer is recited:  Tefilat Geshem, in which we ask for bountiful rain.

On the second day of Shemini Atzeret is Simchat Torah, during which we finish, and start again, our annual cycle of reading the Torah.  True to its name (Hebrew for “rejoicing with the Torah”), Simchat Torah is a time for great joy and delight, and is marked by festive singing and dancing.  During Simchat Torah, we remove Torah scrolls from the ark and carry them around the synagogue in seven circuits (in Hebrew, hakafot).  Many congregations follow a custom of calling all members to the Torah for an aliyah, a position of great honor that enables them to be close to, and to read from, the holy scroll.

For Discussion – Our modern-day challenge:
Our prayers for abundant rain remind us of our reliance on God and nature for our continued wellbeing.  In many communities, insufficient rain, and the meager crops that follow, can literally mean the difference between life and death.  How can we, as advocates, help mitigate the results of drought in impoverished societies?  What actions can we take to alleviate their immediate suffering, and to foster their longer-term prosperity?

As we conclude our reading of the Torah with the final section of Deuteronomy, we immediately begin again with the opening of Genesis.  This is an affirmation of our ongoing commitment to the Torah, and to fulfilling its many mitzvot, or commandments.  How can use Simchat Torah as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to one of Judaism’s most urgent commandments:  helping all people in times of need?  What are some specific ways we can offer this assistance to struggling people both here at home and abroad?

Activities for Advocates:
Write an article for your local Jewish newspaper, explaining why our continued dedication to the Torah and its ideals makes Simchat Torah a perfect time to increase our focus on global social justice.

Sit down with your family and make a list of your social justice priorities for the upcoming year.  Set ambitious – but realistic – goals, discussing specific strategies you can employ – and actions you can take – to help reduce poverty, disease and hunger in the U.S. and around the world.

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