“It’s crazy the way they do things in Israel on Simchas Torah. Dancing and drinking and then Yizkor, when you are supposed to be sad, at the same time. We’re lucky we have two days here to do everything.”
So was the rationalization of someone in our community in Phoenix when we lived there many years ago. At the time I thought this person made sense. Of course, that was before I moved to Israel and learned that joy and sorrow often go hand-in-hand.
Yes, Simchat Torah in Israel is a long day full of the holiday prayers, the special prayer for rain, the celebration of the completing the reading of the Torah and beginning it again from anew, the dancing, and, with all of that, Yizkor, the remembrance prayer that is recited four times a year; Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesach, Shavuot, and Simchat Torah. Yet, when this long day ends and the holiday is over we turn our attention to the needs of the new year.
This past Friday, while the observant Jews of the Diaspora were dancing in their synagogues, in Israel we were dismantling our sukkahs, packing away decorations, beginning the laundry that had built up over the week-long festival, and making appointments and plans for the winter. Among all these activities a number of us in Shilo made our way to the cemetery for a memorial service.
Sixteen years ago Chaimy, an eleven-year-old boy with a huge smile, died on Shabbat Sukkot, the Shabbat of his older brother’s Bar Mitzvah. It was late afternoon, the adults were eating the third meal in the sukkah and the children were playing hide-and-seek. Chaimy’s weak heart suddenly gave out and he literally dropped dead. Ambulances were called, the doctor and nurse arrived, he was taken to the hospital, but no one was able to revive him. The following morning the community of Shilo gathered in the cemetery to say good-bye. His funeral was held in pouring rain and it was as if HaShem’s tears mixed with our own.
Then the funeral was over and it was still Sukkot, the time of joy, the time when we are commanded to be happy. That was when I learned just how mistaken that rationalization for not living in Israel was. We made a valiant effort to have a happy, if not joyous, Sukkot. But how were we going to be able to celebrate Simchat Torah?
Chaimy’s parents taught us how. Special people, with an abundance of faith, they danced and sang with all their hearts in honor of the Torah. As soon as the holiday ended though, they began their week of shiva. They mourned their son and at the same time affirmed their faith that whatever HaShem does is right. They taught us the lesson that joy and sorrow are indeed part of life and we can’t have one without the other.
It makes perfect sense to celebrate Simchat Torah in Israel, the place HaShem commanded us to live. While we rejoice, we recognize our mourning, and we know it’s all from HaShem.