Since Simchat Torah is the day in which we celebrate the Torah, its divinity, greatness and superiority, it is quite perplexing that there is no special mitzvah commanding the Jewish people to study Torah more deeply and for longer on this festival than on any other day. In fact little studying can be done since much of the day is occupied with dancing and singing and even the reading of the Torah is kept to a minimum: Specifically the concluding words of the Torah and not much more than some opening verses of Sefer Bereshith and a small portion related to some festival sacrifices in the Tabernacle.
Even more remarkable is the unavailability of the Text. While dancing with the Torah scrolls, they are carefully covered by a mantel and not once is the actual text shown to the worshippers and synagogue dancers. Seemingly we are not allowed to see what we celebrate!
Even when we actually read from the text, and not only on this day, but throughout all of the year, the text is immediately covered once the reading of one “portion” has come to an end. There is a constant attempt to hide the text. This is also shown by the fact that, once a Torah portion has been read, it slowly but surely disappears again into the scroll, while another one, which was hidden up till now, is revealed for a short while before quickly disappearing again at the first instance.
What is the meaning behind all this?
It could not be clearer. Now that we start to read the Torah all over again, we must once more be reminded of its absolute holiness. As such it is inaccessible and inapproachable.
Its holiness is of such superiority that we need to receive a stern warning that we are once again undertaking the impossible. There is no way to fathom this work and all that we can do is to read its outer layer but never “das ding an sich” (the thing it self) The book will forever stay a closed work. Only for a moment can one look into its text without getting burned. Too much of gazing at the Torah will leave the reader paralyzed. Only in a secondary form, in a normal printed book with the help of commentaries can one approach the text. It is only through these commentaries that the text can be brought down to the level of mortal man. Only when the Torah is partially stripped from its heavenly fire and made “user friendly” is there a slight chance that one may understand some of its contents.
This is also the reason why Jews only start reading the Torah but never finish it. At the end of the year and especially on the day of Simchat Torah even the greatest Torah scholars once more come to the conclusion that they need to read it again, since they failed bitterly last year. After all we only started to read and already we got stuck with the first letter and were never really able to get beyond that point.
While in the non-Jewish world the whole point is to finish a book, in Judaism all that we hope for is to start it and most likely stay put.
This explains why, unlike the week of Succoth in which we circle around a Sefer Torah, which is placed on the Bimah or Tebah (the desk from where the Torah is read in the synagogue), on Simchat Torah we make the Torah scrolls to circle around an empty Bima/Tebah. This time it is not the Torah which stands at the center of our lives, but God, the Great Invisible, Himself Who is encircled.
This we believe is another serious warning to all those who see the Torah as an literary work which can be studied like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a chapter out of man’s great cultural heritage or as a piece of the Israelites’ early history. At the very moment it is disconnected from God, it loses its source of spirituality and its text will slowly but surely die, like a human left without oxygen. While studying, even only its outer layers, the student needs to be constantly reminded that this text is Divine and can therefore only be approached in awe and holiness. The student must hear the voice of God behind the text. It is, as Avraham Jehoshua Heshel once wrote, holiness in words. Though its words seem plain and its idiom translucent, unnoticed meanings and undreamed intimations are hidden in its simple words. Just as God is untouchable so is His text. While studying the text, God must stand at the center of the student’s life.
This is why on Simchat Torah we circle the Torah scrolls around the empty space on the Bima/Tebah which symbolizes the invisible God. Just as with a cylinder which spins around and pulls all its elements to its very center, so the Torah must get more and more drawn to its inner center: God. Only when it becomes clear that God is the Author behind the words can it be (partially) understood.
Now that we are going to start reading the Torah this Shabbath once more from its very beginning, let us not forget this great lesson. All we can do is to approach it with awe and realize that with all our knowledge, the Torah is hidden behind a mantel of divinity.