On Simchat Torah, we complete the reading of the Torah by reading the final portion, Parashat Vezot Haberakha. Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma (end of Vezot Haberakha), asserts that this portion was read on this annual occasion even in the ancient communities of Eretz Yisrael which, as the Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) relates, did not complete the Torah each year, but rather every three years. According to these communities’ Torah reading schedule, Simchat Torah was not always the day when they completed the Torah. Nevertheless, Meshekh Chokhma writes, they read the final portion, Parashat Vezot Haberakha, because this parasha relates to the theme of Simchat Torah. Meshekh Chokhma references the Gemara’s famous comment towards the end of Masekhet Sukka (55b) that the celebration of Shemini Atzeret immediately following Sukkot reflects the special relationship between God and Am Yisrael. Throughout Sukkot, Benei Yisrael would offer special sacrifices on behalf of the entire world, and then, on Shemini Atzeret, they enjoy an extra, “private” celebration together with the Almighty. This theme is expressed in Parashat Vezot Haberakha, in which Moshe poetically speaks of God’s selection of Am Yisrael as His treasured nation from among all others peoples (32:2-3; see Rashi). Therefore, Parashat Vezot Haberakha was read on this day even by communities that did not complete the Torah reading cycle on Simchat Torah.
Meshekh Chokhma advances this theory to explain why we read a different haftara on Simchat Torah than the one mentioned in the Gemara. In Masekhet Megilla (31a), the Gemara writes that the portion from the Nevi’im read on Simchat Torah is the section in Sefer Melakhim I (8) which tells of King Shlomo’s special prayer recited on the occasion of the dedication of the Beit Ha-mikdash, which occurred on Sukkot. The time-honored custom, however, is to read not this section, but rather the first chapter of the Nevi’im – the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua, which in a sense continues the story told in Parashat Vezot Haberakha. The final verses of the Torah tell of Moshe’s passing, and Sefer Yehoshua begins by telling of Yehoshua succeeding him. Meshekh Chokhma suggests that the Gemara requires reading King Shlomo’s prayer because it refers to those communities that did not complete the Torah reading cycle on Simchat Torah. They read Shlomo’s prayer as the haftara because it relates to the theme of the special love between God and Am Yisrael. But in communities that complete the Torah reading cycle on Simchat Torah, the appropriate haftara is the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua. Meshekh Chokhma explains that in the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua (1:8), God speaks to Yehoshua and urges him to faithfully abide by the Torah – impressing upon us the belief that the Torah which we just completed will never be altered or replaced by another set of laws. This is an appropriate message for the day we complete the Torah, Meshekh Chokhma writes, and so we read this section as the haftara on the day of the Torah’s completion.
Interestingly, as noted by Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chashukei Chemed, Sukka 55b), Meshekh Chokhma’s analysis of the Simchat Torah reading may yield halakhic ramifications. He addresses the case of somebody who lives in the Diaspora – where two separate days are observed, the second of which is celebrated as Simchat Torah – but spends the holiday in Israel, where only one day is observed. Notwithstanding the controversial question of how many days of Yom Tov a Diaspora resident observes when spending Yom Tov in Israel, this particular individual followed the view that a person in this situation must observe two days, as he does back home in the Diaspora. And, on the first day, he participated in an Israeli minyan, and he thus heard the reading of Parashat Vezot Haberakha. The next morning, which is Simchat Torah in the Diaspora, he discovered that a group of visitors from the Diaspora were making a minyan for the Simchat Torah prayer service. The question became whether he should make a point of attending this minyan so he could hear Parashat Vezot Haberakha. On the one hand, he already heard this portion read the previous day. But on the other hand, he was now observing Simchat Torah, when, according to his custom as a Diaspora resident, Parashat Vezot Haberakha is to be read.
Rav Zilberstein writes that according to Meshekh Chokhma’s discussion, it would seem that the person in this case should attend the minyan and hear Parashat Vezot Haberakha a second time. After all, according to Meshekh Chokhma, this parasha is read for two purposes – both as part of the Torah reading cycle, completing the Torah, and also because of its connection to the theme of this Yom Tov. It would thus stand to reason that this individual should, indeed, endeavor to hear the reading of Parashat Vezot Haberakha on that day which he celebrates as Simchat Torah, even though he had already heard this parasha the previous day.
However, Rav Zilberstein cites the Chida’s comments in Birkei Yosef (O.C. 668) which express a different view. The Chida writes there that Parashat Vezot Haberakha in fact bears no connection at all to the occasion of Simchat Torah, and is read simply for the purpose of completing the Torah reading cycle. According to this perspective, there would be no need for this Diaspora resident to hear Parashat Vezot Haberakha a second time on the day he celebrates as Simchat Torah.