I remember celebrating Simchat Torah as a child. It was a fun holiday, filled with lots of noise, lots of candy, and lots of shenanigans. One “custom” in the shul of my youth, as in so many others, was to tie tallitot. And did we ever! We would tie one tallit to another, we would tie five tallitot together and we would tie tallitot to different pieces of shul furniture – chairs, benches and tables. For us, Simchat Torah was Purim in the fall. We had a lot of fun, as did the adults around us, in similar fashion. I remember the ba’al musaf being splashed with water as he recited mashiv ha’ru’ach u’morid hageshem to predictable, but uproarious laughter during the Chazarat HaShatz. As I got older, I began to question some of these practices. I wondered if they were over the top, perhaps drawing their participants farther from experiencing the unembellished joy of the Torah itself. These games and pranks were surely fun, but were they simcha?
The Gemara in Shabbat 30a cites two statements about simcha in Kohelet that seem to conflict with each other. The first statement is “v’shibachti ani et ha’simcha” – “and I praise happiness.” The second statement is “u’l’simcha mah zu osah” – “what does simcha accomplish?” The gemara explains that the first type of simcha is simcha shel mitzvah, or simcha that is experienced in the context of a mitzvah. This simcha is deemed praiseworthy by Kohelet. The second type of simcha is simcha she’aina shel mitzvah, simcha that is not derived from a mitzvah. This simcha is devoid of real value or accomplishment, and is therefore criticized by Kohelet.
Baruch Hashem, at the Young Israel of Oceanside, we have come a long way from the Simchat Torah of my childhood years. First of all, kids don’t tie tallitot anymore. Part of me is proud that we have educated our children not to tie them anymore because often doing so is a violation of Hilkhot Yom Tov, but part of me suspects that kids aren’t used to tying knots because for the most part kids don’t buy shoes with shoelaces anymore! What is certainly true, is that our children model the Simchat Torah experiences they see their own parents personifying and enjoying. When our children see their parents, mothers and fathers, dancing during hakafot with such energy and excitement, our children understand that this holiday is all about simcha shel mitzvah. For that I extend my hakarat hatov to all who contributed to the palpable sense of simcha in our shul, with a special note of thanks to Nechama Aryeh for leading the dancing on the women’s side!
This year at YIO, we added a beautiful new element to the Hakafot, thanks to our wonderful youth director, Daniel Stroock. After each hakafa, a different child from our community delivered a short dvar torah. We had worried that it might be hard to quiet such a large crowd of hundreds of people who had been dancing with such ruach, but as each child got up to speak, everyone eagerly listened to our young boys and girls share words of Torah with our community. Then, true to the embodiment of the spirit of simcha shel mitzvah, after each child delivered a dvar torah, all of his or her friends danced with him or her to celebrate the Torah of Simchat Torah with them! Yasher koach to our young, budding talmidei chachamim, Benaya Aryeh, Moshe Bekritsky, Daniel Boshnack, Alex Brand, Debra Burger, Samantha Burger, Evie Haar, Rami Kessock and Kira Klayman for their divrei Torah!
All in all, this Yom Tov left me with a sense of simcha that I feel confident is what Kohelet meant by “v’shibachti ani et ha’simcha,” a simcha that is praiseworthy. No tallitot were tied and our baalei tefilla were not showered with water, but as I reflect on this year’s Simchat Torah celebration at the Young Israel of Oceanside, I am confident that our children understand what it truly means to be b’simcha with the Torah. Because when our simcha is derived from the simple joy of having the gift of our Torah, we do not need the trappings of another Purim in the fall. The children at YIO saw and received this message loud and clear. They understand what simcha shel mitzvah is, even if it does still come with a lot of candy.