Rejoicing over the Primal Torah
We celebrate the Torah on two separate holidays in the year. Given that Shavuot is the “Festival of the Giving of the Torah,” why do we also celebrate Simchat Torah, the “Rejoicing over the Torah”?
According to Chazal, the Torah is the spiritual essence residing in all of existence since the beginning of Creation. This primal Torah is described in two different ways. Near the beginning of Bereishit Rabba, we find the following parable:
Usually, when a mortal king builds a palace, he does not build it on the basis of his own imagination; rather, it is planned by an architect. And the artist does not build it off the top of his head; rather, he has plans and diagrams, so he knows how to arrange the rooms and the doors. Likewise, the Holy One, blessed be He, consulted the Torah and created the world.
The Torah is the architectural plan for the world. Thus, any violation of the Torah obstructs the realization of the Divine plan and may even bring catastrophe. Based on this view, Chazal teach that God made a condition when He created the world: If Bnei Yisrael would not accept the Torah, the world would revert to its state of chaos and void (Rashi, Bereishit 1:31).
This is the acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. It is a matter of sustaining Creation in accordance with the Divine plan.
The other image appears in the Zohar, anticipating an awakening of wisdom in the future:
In the six hundredth year of the sixth millennium, the gates of wisdom on High will be opened, along with the wellsprings of wisdom down below, and the world will be made ready to enter the seventh millennium.
The wisdom of Torah is to be found beyond the windows of Heaven and in the depths of the earth. When the gates on High and the wellsprings below are opened, mankind will witness an outpouring of wisdom in anticipation of Redemption. Here, the Torah is compared to the primal water that emerged and drowned the world in the generation of the Flood. This comparison is also hinted to in other sources. We learn, for example, that Moshe’s soul was present in the generation of the Flood: “Where is there a reference to Moshe [i.e., Moshe’s essence] in the Torah [prior to his appearance in Sefer Shemot]? [In the verse that reads,] ‘insofar as (be-shagam) he also is flesh’ [beshagam=Moshe in gematriya]” (Chullin 139b). Likewise we find in the Zohar (Ra’aya Mehimna, Pinchas): “Moshe was meant to receive the Torah in the generation of the Flood, but they were wicked.”
The deepest and innermost essence of existence is desire (yitzriyut), the reverse side of which is creativity (yetziratiyut). These two forces churn and froth from the same source. The generation of the Flood was imbued with the forces of fermentation and renewal that it would have needed to commit itself to Torah, but owing to their wickedness, these same forces washed them away, rather than building them up.
In the context of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, in contrast to Shavuot, our perspective on the primal Torah is not that of an infinitely fine and detailed Divine plan, but rather of a primal force that simmers and erupts in the souls of those who occupy themselves with it. It is unpredictable in its manifestations and its renewal.
In Massekhet Sukka (53b), we learn that the world was almost drowned by the waters of the deep when King David dug the foundations of the Temple. Miraculously, he was able to repel and subdue them – but this subsiding of the waters was a catastrophe, and the fifteen “songs of ascent” (Tehillim 120-134) were uttered to raise them back to their proper level. David had to discover and reveal the deepest depths in order to lay the foundations for the Beit Ha-Mikdash. We too, need these forces, despite the danger that they pose, because they hold the secret to the vitality of the Torah. The psalms uttered by David are recited over the water during the Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eva ceremony, with the drawing of the Divine spirit.
Torah is compared to rain: “Let my teaching sprinkle you like rain” (Devarim 32:2). Likewise the evil inclination, which is also an existential need: “The evil inclination is just as essential for the world as rain is, for were it not for the evil inclination, the joy of [Torah] study would not exist” (Zohar, Toledot). The prayer for rain, which we start to recite at this time of year, also arouses the joy that bursts forth on Simchat Torah, reflecting the joy of Torah study.
May we rejoice truly and wholeheartedly in the Torah, which is our light and our strength.
Translated by Kaeren Fish