A NIGHT OF JOY
Rabbi Reuven Mann
Judaism is very meticulous about the manner in which it celebrates Festivals. Thus, we eat Matzah on Pesach because it recalls the suddenness of the Exodus which happened so quickly there was no time for the dough to rise. On Sukkot, we leave our homes and establish residence in the Succah to remember, "In Sukkot did I house the children of Israel when I took them out of Egypt." Hashem protected us and provided for all our needs in the wilderness. Dwelling in a fragile hut for seven days facilitates our concentration on these significant ideas. A question can be raised with regard to Simchat Torah-the Holiday of rejoicing with the Torah. The purpose of the day is to give expression to the profound feelings of joy in the study and observance of Torah. However, the timing of this holiday seems strange. W e observe it on Shmini Atzeret, which is the eigth day of Sukkot. It would seem that Simchat Torah ought to be connected to Shavuot for the theme of this Holiday is the giving of the Torah. The purpose of the Exodus was to fashion a unique nation, which would govern its private and public affairs according to the commandments and philosophy of the Torah. Our love of Torah is so great that we anticipate the day of Revelation by counting the forty-nine days from Pesach to Shavuot. Why then don't we sing and dance and rejoice with the Torah on Shavuot? This would, at first glance, seem like a more appropriate time than Shmini Atzeret.
Judaism insists on honesty and truthfulness and frowns upon displays of shallow emotionalism. Profound sentiments of joy do not come easily. How often do we feel so happy that we just want to burst out in song and dance? We need something personal and compelling like a major family simcha to arouse powerful feelings of joy. Is it reasonable to expect us to get so excited over a Book containing commandments, prohibitions and exhortations to act with justice and compassion that we want to sing and dance with it for hours and hours? Indeed it is-but these emotions must be cultivated over a long period of time. The goal of Torah observance is not mere obedience, but joyful exuberance with the lifestyle of Kedusha (Holiness). Joy in the service of Hashem is the highest ideal. The Rambam says (Laws of Lulav 8:18) "The rejoicing one experiences in the performance of Mitzvot and love of G-d who commanded them is a great service. Whoever holds himself back from this simcha is fit to be punished as the Torah says, 'Because they failed to serve Hashem with joy and a good heart'."
The joy of which the Rambam speaks does not come quickly or easily. It requires effort, devotion and the ability to withdraw from superficial pleasures. You must put your heart and soul into the study of Torah and then you will appreciate its great beauty and fall in love with it.
Shavuot marks the beginning of our relationship with Torah. This is the time when our ancestors demonstrated their faithfulness by saying, "we will do and we will listen." The Creator had made us an offer we could not refuse. We knew that Torah is the greatest treasure. However, the Torah does not magically transform us. It takes a great deal of dedicated effort to achieve the emotional joy and satisfaction that the Torah promises. On Shavuot we renew that commitment. Many observe the beautiful custom of learning through the night to demonstrate their willingness to part with the pleasure of sleep in order to gain more Torah knowledge. It is worthwhile to pause and consider the deeper significance of this practice. The Mitzvah of Talmud Torah is not bound by time or place. We read in the Shema, "And you shall teach them to your children and discuss them when you sit in your house and when you travel on the road, when you lie down and when you arise." Although there is never a time when one is exempt from study, the night assumes a special significance in the performance of this Mitzvah. The Rambam says (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:13) "Even though it is a Mitzvah to learn by day and by night a person only learns the bulk of his wisdom by night. Therefore, one who seeks to merit the Crown of Torah should guard all his night and not waste any one of them with sleep, eating and drinking, talking and the like, but only with the study of Torah and matters of wisdom."
At first glance this is difficult to comprehend. If study is properly done what difference does it make in which part of the day it takes place? Would any scientist assert that a certain theory of his was formulated during the night in order to enhance its validity?
I would like to suggest an explanation for this tantalizing Rambam. The daytime hours are universally regarded as the time for "work". One naturally feels responsible to be engaged in some gainful employment during the day. Night, however, is the time that people associate with self gratification. You've put in a long day and now it?s time to relax, unwind and have fun. It's easier to learn by day because then your work ethic is operative and you feel you must do something constructive with your time. Learning by day represents the service of obligation and responsibility. Learning at night represents the service of love. The psychic energy which is searching for fun and pleasure finds its greatest satisfaction through immersion in Torah. Nothing in the world is more enjoyable and deeply satisfying than a profound Torah insight. When we stay up and learn on the night of Shavuot we express our realization that Torah is not a burden but is, rather, the greatest joy.
We do understand why Simchat Torah could not be observed on Shavuot. The relationship has just begun and there is so much work to do. Singing and dancing will come later. We rejoice on Shmini Atzeret because that is when we complete the annual Torah reading cycle. We thereby affirm that one who is faithful and constant in his studies will uncover the beauty of Torah. Our relationship to Torah is framed by profound commitment to the hard work of studying the Torah and performing the commandments as well as a realization that the ultimate goal of our service to Hashem is a feeling of sublime joy. May we merit attaining it.
Chag Shavuot Sameach