Rosh Hashanah you hear the shofar. Yom Kippur you fast. Sukkos you eat in the sukkah and take the lulav-esrog. Simchas Torah you have no mitzvah. Simchas Torah, the joy of the torah, the joy of this learning that takes a lifetime, Simchas Torah has no learning. At night, we take the Torah but don’t read the Torah; we don’t even unfurl it. Simchas Torah we dance.
We dance with abandon, not looking at the clock, not trying to keep pace, not thinking if we’ll be late for davening tomorrow, just dancing. The dancing of Simchas Torah. Elie Wiesel wrote of the Jews dancing on the streets of Moscow during the Fifties. One night in the year they had no fear, they were not Jews of silence they were Jews of Simchas Torah.
My uncle was burned by the Nazis, in a shul in Riga. He died singing the song of Simchas Torah.
As a kid I remember Simchas Torah had a bigger turnout in my father’s shul than Kol Nidre. I don’t know if the then-gabbai’s statistics bear me out on that, but a kid’s perception counts, regardless.
Simchas Torah with the Rebbe: Simchas Torah with the Rebbe there were more people in 770 than 770 could possibly have held. It couldn't have happened but it did. Special portable air conditioning units blasted in air through huge vents overhead. The Chassidim held on to their precious six inches each, and stood on whatever would give them a view, benches, chairs, metal milkcases. Get off the milkcases, someone whose view was blocked would shout, shouting in Yiddish, English Hebrew, French.
Together they would chant the Atah Hareisa verses, robust chanting, more football-team chanting than religious music chanting. The Rebbe would make his way slowly down the aisle – a path to the middle of the shul protected on both sides by thick, strong tables to maintain a crowd that would have overwhelmed a World Cup crowd control pro.
Normally, no chossid would ever stop the Rebbe to talk, much less extend a hand or touch something the Rebbe was holding, but on Simchas Torah, well, it was Simchas Torah. They kissed the tiny Torah the Rebbe cradled in his arm. They beseeched his blessing: may we meet again next year: my father should recover quickly and dramatically: I should be successful in your holy work.
Slowly the Rebbe came to the middle of the shul, a tiny area fortressed by tables, with crowds on all sides ascending stadium–like on all sides to the far reaches of the long room. There was a mad rush as everyone ensured their best spot, some impish chutzpanik tried to block the . . . get off the milkbox! guy behind him. Okay I’ll crouch, can you see now, yes, but if you pick your head up I’ll send you flying.
The Rebbe is surrounded by dozens of dozens of excited nine-year-old boys.
Ahhah aha ha ya aya ya the wordless Simchas Torah niggun, which in music books rises in crescendo. Tonight it started at a crescendo. All attention is now in the middle of the shul. The Rebbe dancing, beaming, lifting the Torah as if an offering to the multitudes towering around him. The singing is boisterous in volume, joyous but reverent, the type that takes all your emotions and stuns them. Only in hindsight can you feel how all your emotions sing such singing.
During the height of the dancing I steal a glance around the room to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe in the eyes of the Chassidim. Sometimes you see more when you don’t look straight on.
Why did I write this piece about Simchas Torah with the Rebbe? Did I whet any appetites? I doubt it. Did I capture a mood? a scene? I don’t think so. But could I have witnessed this, been a part of it, and said nothing?
Simchas Torah is in just a few nights. We will dance. We will dance and we will sing in our shul and on our street. Our kids will dance. And they will remember.