This week Jews will end the marathon of Jewish Holidays that started back on September 3rd with Rosh Hashanah, concluding the holidays with Simhat Torah, the Rejoicing of the Torah. Depending on whether the Jew is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, or Israeli or a citizen of the Diaspora, Simhat Torah will be observed on Wednesday night and Thursday, or on Thursday night and Friday. I've been told that a non-Jew entering a synagogue on Simhat Torah can feel disoriented:
Some synagogues, including ours, take our celebrations outside, weather permitting.
So, what's going on? Why the celebration?
On Simhat Torah we complete the weekly readings of the Torah. Those still paying attention and not too inebriated when the Torah is finally read will hear the last lines of the Torah chanted, Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, to be immediately followed by the beginning of Genesis, chapter 1 to 2:3. The former reading, for anyone paying attention, is actually sad, as it deals with the death of Moses. So why are we parading around our synagogues and dancing in the streets? Are we happy that Moses died?
What we are celebrating is the completion of another year's study of Torah. And we don't just celebrate our laurels, we promptly start another year's study all over again!
There is a related Jewish custom known as a siyum, a party thrown when someone has completed their study of a book of the Talmud. The student temporarily ends the study several lines from the end of the book, and then invites friends, family and other congregants to hear him or her read the final sentences of the book, with the student adding his or her commentary. Then the celebration begins, although generally it's more subdued than the celebration at Simhat Torah. Attendance at a siyum even overrides a minor fast day, the mitzvah (commandment or good deed) of eating and drinking with the student or colleague who has completed the study of a book of the Talmud overrides the mitzvah of the fast.
The counterpart in secular society is graduation, although the formal graduation ceremony is far more serious than the raucous celebration at Simhat Torah. Maybe graduating high school seniors who party afterwards have the right idea.
Rabbi Hillel (who lived just before the time of Jesus) said, "He who does not increase his knowledge decreases it." Avot 1:13. No matter who we are, we should always strive to learn more, celebrating what we have learned, but always striving to learn more. This applies to science and history and art and world and national politics and all other branches of learning, not just to religion. And the Daily Kos has been a great web site from which to learn so many things.