I remember close to thirty years ago, when I was much better at getting to daily minyan every morning. The day before Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a close friend, both of whose parents were holocaust survivors, suggested we skip, or at least abbreviate Pesukai d’Zimra, the daily selection of certain psalms that immediately precedes the actual Shacharit. While I understood, as best I could, his painful associations with the holocaust, I advocated we say them nonetheless. My argument was that we include this beautiful section of poetry even on Tisha B’Av, our saddest day of the year (the day both of our Holy Temples were destroyed).
I received a selection of photographs this morning of the wedding of close friends’ son. The father had recently learned of his impending death due to illness and this always active man was confined to a wheel chair except for a few moments under the chuppah with the couple. While I can’t but feel a bittersweet sadness at this portfolio, the photos, not only of my terminally-ill friend, but also of his family, show only joy and love.
Some of the most sublime Torah of modern times was written by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro zt”l, the Piesentzner Rebbe in his sefer אש קודש, Aish Kodesh, The Holy Fire, comprising his weekly Torah lessons from within the Warsaw Ghetto where, after witnessing the brutal murders of his beloved family, he also perished. Emerging from this hell-on-earth, his words remain steadfast in his love of God and of the Jewish people.
The mitzva of Simchat Yom Tov, happiness in our festivals, was said by Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l to be “the hardest one in the book”. Not only are we commanded to rejoice in our holy day, but we’re enjoined to have no feelings but happy ones, וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ, V’Hayita Ach Sameach, and you will be only happy! Twenty-five or forty-nine hours without a moment of anger, depression or even distraction from happiness is a super-human feat.
The rapidly approaching festival of Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (all on a single day in Israel, spanning two full days in galut, exile) is exceptionally difficult this year in the midst of terrorist murders of Israeli civilians, creating, at last (and hopefully final) count, fourteen new orphans. We need to fully grieve this terrible loss, but without this, and all other chaggim, festivals, and this especially difficult, but also all other, mitzvot, these losses lose their universality. They remain private tragedies that happened to “someone else”.
No, it’s not heartless to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah this year. It’s heartless to not dance, to let our individual griefs distract from the principles that gave meaning to the lives of these martyrs and which give meaning to our own lives as well.
As we read just yesterday, Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, from Kohelet, עֵת לִבְכּוֹת וְעֵת לִשְׂחוֹק עֵת סְפוֹד וְעֵת רְקוֹד, “there is a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
Very few, if any, of us ever fully fulfills a mitzva, any mitzva. We are all works-in-progress. Perhaps our ability to, eventually, fully observe שמחת יום טוב, simchat yom tov, אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ, ach sameach, joy and only joy in our festival, is a sign that we’ve reached our goal of transforming ourselves and our world into the perfection we all await. May it be soon, even tomorrow.