“The Confluence of v’Zot Habracha and the Holiday”

(originally posted in 5770-2009)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The festival of Simchat Torah, the rejoicing with the Law, is one of two major festivals during which we celebrate with the Torah with great fervor. The festival of Shavuot, observed on the sixth of Sivan, marks the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many Jews celebrate Shavuot by staying up all night studying Torah showing their devotion to Torah and to atone for our people’s reputed sin of falling asleep on the night before the Torah was given at Sinai. Simchat Torah, on the other hand, appears to be a pure, unadulterated celebration of Torah.

The obvious reason that the Torah is the “centerpiece” of this festival is because on this day, with the reading of parashat v’Zot Habracha, we conclude the Five Books of Moses and start the Book of Genesis with parashat Bereishith, the story of creation. Although the weekly portion of Bereishith will be read in its entirety on the following Shabbat, we show our abiding love for Torah by immediately beginning to read the Torah as soon as the Book of Deuteronomy is concluded.

There is a powerful connection between parashat v’Zot Habracha and the festival of Simchat Torah. It is in this parasha that Moses exhorts the Jewish people regarding the importance of establishing Torah as the center of all Jewish life. In Deuteronomy 33:4, as part of his last testament, Moses says, תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, the Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.  Rashi dramatically describes the Jews’ relationship with the Torah by stating:  אֲחַזֽנוּהָ וֽלֹא נַעַזֽבֶנָּה, we grasped it [Torah] and we will never abandon it, underscoring the uncompromising commitment of the Jewish people to Torah and the indispensable role that Torah plays, serving as the lifeblood of all Jews.

So deep is the Jew’s relationship to Torah that the Talmud in Sanhedrin 91b, focusing on the word   מוֹרָשָׁה “mo’rah’shah“-heritage-cites Rabbi Yehudah saying in the name of Rav that whoever withholds a Jewish law or any Torah principle from his disciple is as though he had robbed him of his ancestral heritage. Furthermore, the rabbis boldly assert, the Torah that Moses commanded us is an inheritance destined for all Israel, from the six days of Creation. That is why it is not at all surprising that the Torah is often compared to water without which we could not survive for any extended length of time. Thus, from the rabbinic point of view, on Simchat Torah we do not celebrate the gift of Torah, but rather the very elixir of life.

The Ramban explains the word “Mo’rah’shah” to mean that the Torah is a heritage of the Jewish people, indicating an inalienable possession of the Jewish people that is passed on from generation to generation through transmission and teaching.

The ArtScroll Stone edition of the Chumash cites Rabbi Mordechai Gifter who explains the difference between the Hebrew word  נַחֲלָה, meaning inheritance, and “Mo’rah’shah,” a heritage. An inheritance, says Rabbi Gifter, is for the heirs to use and dispose of in any way they wish. However, a heritage is the property of both the preceding generations and the following generations. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the heirs to preserve the heritage intact for future generations. It may not be frittered away as a common inheritance.

It is because of the fear that Israel would consider the Torah as an inheritance rather than a heritage that Rabbi Yose in Avot 2:17 states, וְהַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ לִלְמֹד תּוֹרָה, שֶׁאֵינָהּ יְרֻשָּׁה לָךְ, prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not given to you as an inheritance. Although, the words “mo’rah’shah” and יְרֻשָּׁה  “y’rusha” are closely related, they apparently do not mean the same thing. Mo’rah’shah means heritage, whereas y’rusha, like nachalah, means inheritance.

In order to further this distinction, our rabbis in Tractate Pesachim 49b offer an unusual interpretation based on a play of words from Deuteronomy 33:4. They insist: Do not read the word as “Mo’rah’shah,” a heritage, but rather as “M’oh’rah’sah,” betrothed. Since an inheritance is something that the heir never built nor was the inherited money personally earned, the heir might treat the estate in a rather flippant manner, squandering and spending it as he pleases. A M’oh’rah’sah, a betrothed woman, on the other hand, is a bride whose future husband has already assumed [in the first part of the wedding ceremony] a series of serious obligations to love, honor, cherish and support his future wife.

Mr. Irving Bunim maintains in his classic work Ethics From Sinai, that our rabbis wisely chose the metaphor of betrothal. The people of Israel are betrothed to Torah because of the sacred vow that was assumed during the marriage ceremony between G-d and Israel at Sinai. It is not simply something inherited from the past, from grandparents and great-grandparents that loses its relevance in the “WiFi” and digital age, but rather something with which the contemporary generation has a personal bond, as did past generations. Far from being a relic of the past, it is the living embodiment of the present and the future.

The literal interpretation of  מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, meaning a heritage of the community of Israel, raises the issue of “unappreciated” heritages. Unfortunately, Jewish history is replete with examples of noble leaders whose children rejected their heritage. The prophet Samuel’s children did not follow his righteous path. Instead, they chose to pursue wealth, engage in bribery and distort judgment (I Samuel 8:1-3). Therefore, they did not inherit the mantle of leadership.

The great Moses himself, we are told in Avot d’Rav Natan 17:3, realized that his own sons would not be worthy of assuming the mantle of leadership for Israel. In despair, Moses wrapped himself in his tallit and cried out before G-d, “Master of the Universe, tell me, who will lead this people?” (See Numbers 27:16-17). The Al-mighty responded (Proverbs 27:18), “Those who guard the fig tree shall eat its fruits.” Only those who prepare themselves to study Torah are worthy of leading the people. While your children sat idly, Joshua served you diligently and accorded you great honor. Joshua would rise early every morning and remain until late each night in your house of study. He would arrange the benches and lay out the carpets. He served you with all his might, preparing himself for future leadership. It is he who is worthy of leading Israel (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 21:15).

While the verse in Deuteronomy seems to indicate that there is a guarantee that Torah will be transmitted from generation to generation, that guarantee is not assured to each person, but rather to the community as a whole. It is therefore incumbent upon each generation to reaffirm its commitment to Torah. That is exactly what we do on the festival of Simchat Torah, by both individually and communally celebrating the conclusion of the study of the Five Books of Moses and reaffirming our commitment to begin anew with enthusiasm and fervor.

May you be blessed.

The final days of the Tishrei holidays begin on Sunday evening, October 4th and continue all day Monday, October 5th, Shemini Atzeret (click here). The festival of Simchat Torah (click here) commences on Monday night, October 5th and is celebrated all day Tuesday, October 6th.

May this season be a joyous time for all, punctuated by happiness and good health. Chag Samayach!
“The Confluence of v’Zot Habracha and the Holiday”