We are a people only because of the book

Imagine the following scene playing out on CSPAN:  On a specific day of the year, the Supreme Court justices together with the member of Congress take copies of the United States Constitution and dance around the floor of the House of Representatives while singing, clapping and lifting the law books high in the air.   With each circuit of those carrying the Constitution, the others lean in to affectionately kiss the books before they pass by. This entire scenario seems impossible and the very suggestion of this scene is ludicrous.

And yet, this is exactly what we do on Simchas Torah in Shuls around the world.  We collect all the Torahs from around the shul, sing and dance in a spirited fashion and kiss each Torah as it passes us by.  What explains our seemingly bizarre behavior, especially in contrast with the attitude and approach every other legal system and religion brings to their law books?

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains so beautifully:

“A Torah scroll is the nearest thing Judaism has to a holy object. Still written today as it was thousands of years ago — on parchment, using a quill, by a master-scribe — it is our most cherished possession. We stand in its presence as if it were a king. We dance with it as if it were a bride. We kiss it as if it were a friend. If, God forbid, one is damaged beyond repair, we mourn it as if it were a member of the family.

The Koran calls Jews a “people of the book,” but this is an understatement. We are a people only because of the book. It is our constitution as a holy nation under the sovereignty of God. It is God’s love letter to the children of Israel. We study it incessantly. We read it in the synagogue each week, completing it in a year. During the long centuries of Jewish exile, it was our ancestors’ memory of the past and hope for the future. It was, said the German poet Heinrich Heine, the “portable homeland” of the Jew.  Some Christians have found it hard to understand the Jewish love of law. To them it sometimes seems like an obsession with detail, the “letter” rather than the “spirit.”

To us, though, it represents the idea that there is no facet of life that cannot be sanctified and turned into the service of God: eating, drinking, relationships, the workplace, the economy and our welfare system. God belongs to society as well as to the inwardness of the soul. Which is why we need law as well as love.”

We live in a world of great darkness in which people are desperately searching for meaning, purpose, happiness, joy, direction, fulfillment, family values, and more.  While so much of the world struggles, we are amazingly blessed, fortunate and privileged to be charged by the ideals, values and laws of the Torah that truly provides a prescription for a meaningful life.  It is not ours alone and we have no monopoly on its message.  Etz chaim hi, lamachazikim bah, it is a tree of life for all those who hold on to it.

As we close in on seven long and intensive weeks that began with the first of Elul and ends with Simchas Torah, many of us feel burnt out, tired, and sick of cooking, eating, long davening and yes, even preparing and listening to sermons and classes.  It is no coincidence that exactly when we begin to feel Jewish holidays and observant life are burdensome and difficult that we observe Simchas Torah and remember how fortunate and blessed we are to have Torah and the true simcha it brings.

As we head into the final stretch of this marathon season, I wish you a Chag sameach and a year filled with the simchas Torah, the joy of Torah and simchas ha’chayim, the joy of life.

Chag Sameach