Inspiration from Simchat Torah a Century
Simchat Torah 100 years ago (corresponding to
October 22, 1905) was a very difficult time for Jews in
Russia. That October ended with a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms
that engulfed the country: Pogroms in over 660 (!) cities
and towns in Belorussia shattered thousands of lives. Following
the dreadful pogroms in Kishinev and Gomel in 1903, these
massacres left the Jews deeply demoralized, and were the
major cause of the first Russian Jewish emigration to America
at the turn of the 20th century, with hundreds
of thousands of Jews arriving at the shores of this country.
The regions hardest hit by the pogroms were
the Minsk, Mogilev and Chernigov gubernii (districts), which
were densely populated by 221,000 inhabitants, 28,531 of
This area was also home to the fifth Chabad
Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab, who
at the time lived in the town of Lubavitch, which served
as the heart of the movement since 1813.
How did the Rebbe celebrate that challenging
His son, (who in 1920 would become) the Rebbe
Yosef Yitzchak, writes that in that year Simchat Torah night
“my father delivered a discourse for four hours,”
from midnight to around 4AM. “Then we went to [dance]
Hakofot in the shul.”
Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak committed to paper the
entire discourse (22 pages in print), which begins with
the verse “I rose up to open to my beloved; and my
hands dripped with myrrh” (Song of Songs 5:5).
The next day, Simchat Torah afternoon, the
Rebbe Rashab delivered another discourse, titled “when
[or: because] Israel was a child I loved him” (Hosea
This is in addition to the fact that in that
difficult year, one century ago, the Rebbe Rashab began
his historic Hemshech Samech Vov (see Centennial
of a Revolution).
Is this the way a responsible Rebbe responds
to the crisis of his time? Wouldn’t it have made sense
that the Rebbe should have been running for cover and warning
his constituents of the looming pogroms?
Instead, the Rebbe celebrated Simchat Torah,
and indeed the entire year, with providing one of the most
fundamental discussions on life and purpose.
This should not surprise anyone. Throughout
the history of Jewish persecution, Jewish leaders time and
again responded not by wringing their hands and cowering
in fear. Instead, they intensified their scholarship, prayer
and spiritual growth; they deepened their commitment to
virtue and chesed; they increased their mitzvot and adherence
to tradition. Indeed, some of the greatest works of Torah
scholarship were composed “under the gun,” whether
it was Rabbi Akiva during the Roman Empire, Rashi in France
or the Arizal following the Jewish expulsion from Spain
The most powerful response to tragic events
was – never one of resignation, fear or defeat, but
– always a defiant demonstration of the power of the
human spirit, able to face any challenge. All the terrible
events in history led to unprecedented growth and enormous
contributions in scholarship and virtue. And the gains –
not the losses – are what live on forever.
Samech Vov was no different. The pogroms and
unbearable circumstances gave birth to a memorable Simchat
Torah and a revolutionary discourse that would forever change
the way we look at life.
And what the Rebbe Rashab discuss in his 4
hour all-night Simchat Torah discourse?
Briefly, he explained that “I rose up
to open to my beloved” captures the essence of the
human endeavor to get beyond the deception of the world
in which we live and take advantage of special opportunities.
“I rose up to open to my beloved” refers to
a window of opportunity that opens up for us in special
times. “My beloved” is a powerful level of Divine energy
emanating from the Essence, which appears intermittently
– only in unique times. This opening will close if we do
nothing about it. We have to rise up and “open” a door,
i.e. create a container that will retain the energy.
“I rose up” refers to the power within each
individual soul (the “I,” ani), that allows
one to transcend and “rise up” above the din
and deception of life – and see beneath the shrouds
that conceal the true reality of our souls and our lives.
You “rise up” by not being seduced by material
and egoistic trappings, by not getting stuck in the static
of “mind games” and the resistance of intellectual defense
mechanisms. You “rise up” by allowing your “I” (your self)
to be inspired by the enchantment of spirit and bond with
the Divine Unity that lies within all of existence, which
allows you to see beyond the here and now.
We live in a deceptive world; a deception
in consciousness in which we do not recognize the true nature
of our own lives. Conformity results from being caught in
the tentacles of this deception. Independence is possible
by looking above and beyond.
Both scholars and laypeople each have their
own particular challenges in seeing through the blinding
forces of materialism, and both need to connect to the sublime
through study of the Divine Torah. “My hands dripped
with myrrh” refers to the “hands” of laypeople
immersed in manual labor. Through their meditation and study
of the Divine they not only see beyond the concealment;
their hands “drip with myrrh” which transforms
a bitter substance to a beautiful fragrance.
Though the Rebbe Rashab doesn’t spell
it out, it seems quite logical that Simchat Torah is one
of these extraordinary windows of opportunity. No doubt
that this 4 hour discourse had a powerful impact on the
Simchat Torah Hakofot that followed 4 o’clock in the
morning a century ago. With all the destruction brewing
outside that cold Russian October 1905, the Rebbe and his
Chassidim must have danced a dance of spirit that would
be the envy of any one of us…
Today, we too have challenges. Thank G-d not
like those of 1905 Russia. Then the Divine concealment was
clothed in shrouds of pogroms. The darkness created the
deceptive illusion that goodness was vanquished. Today,
our greatest adversary is complacency – the shrouds
of apathy that naturally arise from comforts.
We can learn much from Simchat Torah 100 years
ago. Above all we can derive the inspiration to appreciate
our blessings of freedom and “rise up to open to my
beloved” this Simchat Torah in a Divine dance of body
and soul, lifting ourselves and the entire world to new
heights of transcendence.