What is the meaning of Simchat Torah (and life)?

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By: Ari Wonsover and Gabriel Shnaider

“Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, every man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by responding for his own life; life can only be answered by being responsible.”

Viktor Frankl, The Man in Search of Sense

Simjat Tora is a jag that comes immediately after 7 days of Sucot to mark the end of a long festive period that we have been celebrating from Rosh Hashana. From there his name on Shmini Atzeret’s Tor. This holiday has the peculiarity of having nothing peculiar, it is a jag to mark the end of a long festive period, and that is reason to celebrate. For the same reason on this day the reading of the Torá is finished and we start again from Bereshit.

At this time there is a habit of reading the Meguilat Kohelet. Some usually read it during Sucot week and others at the end of Simjat Tora. What does Kohelet have to do with Simjat Tora? Why Kohelet for the Jaguim farewell? What do you intend? What’s the message you’re coming to give us?

Kohelet is one of the 5 meguilots we found in the Tanaj, his authorship is attributed to Shlomo HaMelej. Shlomo, having achieved many achievements, triumphs and successes in many areas, reflects and questions what the true purpose of life is. The book begins by showing us its frustration:

“הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃ (…) רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַֽמַּעֲשִׂ֔ים שֶֽׁנַּעֲשׂ֖וּ תַּ֣חַת הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה הַכֹּ֛ל הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ׃”

“Vanity of vanities said Kohelet, vanity of vanities is all vanity. (…) I saw all the works done under the sun, and behold, it is all vanity and run after the wind.”

(Kohelet 1:2; 14)

The word “הָֽבֶל” (Hevel) can be interpreted in many ways. It refers to things that lack a really valuable meaning, although they seem to be important. It also refers to these things as “running after the wind”; use your energy, your resources and your time trying to achieve something unattainable, or something that when you think you get it you realize that it’s not valuable.

In Meguila we find several cases in which Shlomo tried to find that things will “fill his heart” completely. In his attempt he realizes all that does not fulfill this objective, such as riches and material goods, knowledge, pleasure, power, recognition, etc. It is important to clarify that you do not say that we need to give up these things; simply that chasing them for the sole purpose of achieving them is Hevel, therefore, an endless goal that will never satisfy us. In other words, the meaning of life is not found in them.

In recent months we believe that we have all found ourselves in the situation of asking ourselves these same questions What things are really valuable in our lives? Which ones are really worth it? What are we grateful for? How do you decide what’s really important? And who decides them? We live in a world that as children leads us down the path of consumerism, instills stereotypes and social roles in us, teaches us to idolize false gods (such as silver, fame, power), that develops into a system that suits us to be ignorant, not to question it, and only to continue inertia without having a clear north, with a false north or a north imposed by someone else.

Then Kohelet comes and questions us what the true purpose of life is. It invites us to realize what is really important and valuable, to reflect on what things we should be grateful for, and to rethink what fate we aim for. He says it’s all temporary, we can’t be absolutely sure we have it today we’re going to have it tomorrow. Then it encourages us to live and enjoy what we have today, to be aware and grateful for the small details of life: a good meal, a conversation with a friend, a good night’s sleep, etc. It is these “routine” moments that we must know how to take advantage of, give them courage and enjoy them. Take advantage of today’s opportunities and moments, live the here and now and enjoy it.

We might think we’ve come to the conclusion of the dilemma, but Shlomo raises other questions. Why do we attach so much importance to happiness? What makes us really happy and why? What else do we want besides happiness? On this he comments:

“ט֥וֹב שֵׁ֖ם מִשֶּׁ֣מֶן ט֑וֹב וְי֣וֹם הַמָּ֔וֶת מִיּ֖וֹם הִוָּלְדֽוֹ׃ ט֞וֹב לָלֶ֣כֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה׃”

“Better is a good name than good oil; and better on the day of death than on the day of birth. It’s better to go to the mourning house than to the banquet house.”

(Kohelet 7:1-2)

When a person dies, he has behind him a life full of decisions, actions, overcomings, growth and the freedom he exercised. On the other hand, our birth was a completely passive act: we did not decide to be born by ourselves and we had not yet exercised any freedom. However, it remains true that it was full of happiness and gave us infinite potential to live and enjoy the world.

Just because something is happy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s meaningful or that it leads us down the path of self-realization. Pleasure and happiness can also be “Hevel” if they are not accompanied by a valued goal. That’s why it’s important that we don’t chase happiness just to be happy; but let us know the right time for happiness. So also, the right time for every emotion, the right time to do each action, the right time to think about each thought, the right time to feel every feeling, the right time to give meaning and value to the variety of experiences in which we will find:

“לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃

עֵ֤ת לַהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת׃

עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד ועֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃

עֵ֚ת לְהַשְׁלִ֣יךְ אֲבָנִ֔ים וְעֵ֖ת כְּנ֣וֹס אֲבָנִ֑ים עֵ֣ת לַחֲב֔וֹק וְעֵ֖ת לִרְחֹ֥ק מֵחַבֵּֽק׃

עֵ֤ת לְבַקֵּשׁ֙ וְעֵ֣ת לְאַבֵּ֔ד עֵ֥ת לִשְׁמ֖וֹר וְעֵ֥ת לְהַשְׁלִֽיךְ׃

עֵ֤ת לִקְר֙וֹעַ֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִתְפּ֔וֹר עֵ֥ת לַחֲשׁ֖וֹת וְעֵ֥ת לְדַבֵּֽר׃

עֵ֤ת לֶֽאֱהֹב֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂנֹ֔א עֵ֥ת מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְעֵ֥ת שָׁלֽוֹם׃”

“Everything has its time, and everything you want under the sky has its time. Time to be born, and time to die; time to plant, and time to start planting; time to kill, and time to heal; time to destroy, and time to build; time to cry, and time to laugh; time to go away, and time to dance; time to scatter stones, and time to gather stones; time to embrace, and time to refrain from embracing; time to look, and time to waste; time to save, and time to discard; time to break, and time to sew; time to shut up, and time to talk; time to love, and time to abhor; time of war, and time for peace.”

(Kohelet 3: 1-8)

It is no coincidence that this Meguila is read precisely at the end of Simja Tora, a jag that “just happens”, we celebrate something that is part of the natural and automatic routine. The agricultural cycle is renewed every year without us doing anything to do so; after a month of festivities that are obviously not whole and at some point an end is marked; after we finish reading the whole Torah, we get to the point where it ends, and we start it again. All these things we celebrate in Simjat Tora are part of visible cycles, there is no mystery or miracle behind them.

This is precisely the detail that makes this jag so special, it gives us the opportunity to value and celebrate those things that are part of our lives and we do not choose them. What do we do with things we can’t control? How do we deal with them? What do we mean? It is important that we learn to recognize and enjoy the details that color life. Unlike other jaguim where we celebrate a specific historical event or a special divine act, Simjat Tora is not associated with anything like this.

This invites us to reflect on something very profound. In Simjat Tora we celebrate that we approach the winter, we finish the Torah and the jaguim culminated; things that are usually not celebrated and that we don’t choose to happen either. Instead of being passive in the face of life, we exercise our freedom by deciding to celebrate it and giving it meaning. If we really know how to value and celebrate a moment like this, it is because we have learned to be free and to decide to live for ourselves.

Sometimes the world shows us that we can’t control everything in front of us, that the things we valued weren’t as important as we thought, and that things we thought were insignificant and obvious really have great value. So how do we give them the courage they deserve? If not even Shlomo Hamelej, the wisest person with the wisest heart in the world, could find an objective answer, how do we know that there really is a meaning for life? Just as Shlomo we simply live, always questioning ourselves and with the confidence to find the right way. Walking our path, we give meaning to the world.

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