Shavuos and Simchas Torah: Two Approaches

Shavuos and Simchas Torah are both devoted to deepen­ing our appreciation of the Torah. The celebrations of these two holidays, however, differ dramatically. Shavuos is charac­terized by a sober increase in Torah study. In many commu­nities it is customary to remain awake through the first night of Shavuos to study the Torah. In contrast, the celebration of Simchas Torah does not typically involve increased Torah study. It is, instead, marked by unbounded happiness, sing­ing, and dancing.

These different customs echo a more fundamental differ­ence in the divine service of these two holidays. Shavuos, as “the season of the Giving of our Torah,”1 focuses on the Giver of the Torah. Simchas Torah, by contrast, celebrating the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, demon­strates how man can succeed in his Torah study through his own efforts. Thus it is appended to Sukkos, “the season of our rejoicing.”

G‑d’s Torah, and Man’s Striving to Possess It

The contrast between these two perspectives on our rela­tionship with the Torah can be illustrated by examples from Torah law. Our Sages2 state that a person who is ritually impure is permitted to study Torah since the Torah itself cannot be rendered impure. “My words (i.e., the Torah) are like fire,”3 and “just as fire cannot become impure, likewise the words of Torah cannot contract impurity.” The Torah remains G‑d’s word even when spoken by an impure individ­ual; his impurity does not detract from the Torah’s fundamen­tal G‑dly nature.

Conversely, our Sages4 state that a Torah scholar is allowed to forego the honor due to him. One might suppose that since any token of respect should relate to his Torah knowledge and not to himself, he should not be allowed to forego it. In fact, however, this ruling of the Sages implies that his knowledge is considered his own to the point where he can choose either to accept or reject such honor.5

These two points of halachah reflect different perspec­tives. The first perceives the Torah as a mirror of G‑d’s utterly transcendent infinity. The second perspective focuses on Torah as internalized by man and points to the ways in which his thinking and conduct can be modified thereby.6

No Longer the “Bread of Shame”

The second approach is more closely related to joy. Our Sages state:7 “A person prefers one kav8 of his own over nine that belong to someone else.” He foregoes the greater quan­tity because of the fulfillment he feels when he receives some­thing that he has worked for and earned.

From the perspective of G‑d, the Giver of the Torah, the Torah completely bypasses the confines of man’s limited understanding. However, when a person relates to the Torah from this perspective, he experiences it as the “bread of shame”9 — alms received as charity, a gift that he has not earned. If, instead, he works hard at studying Torah so that he can thoroughly grasp it, the satisfaction he feels corre­sponds directly to the effort he has expended.

This is why Simchas Torah is celebrated with such joy. Our efforts to comprehend the Torah throughout the entire year are now consummated — surely a cause for unlimited rejoicing.

The Distinctive Quality of the Second Tablets

The above-described differences between Shavuos and Simchas Torah also relate to another explanation for the cele­bration of Simchas Torah,10 namely, that it commemorates the giving of the second tablets on Yom Kippur.11

Extolling the first tablets, our Sages state12 that had they not been broken, “The Torah would never have been forgot­ten by the Jewish people...and no other nation would ever have ruled over them.”

The second tablets are significant for a different reason. Our Sages explain13 that with the first tablets only the Five Books of Moshe and the Book of Yehoshua were revealed. The revelation of the second tablets, however, comprised the entire Oral Law, the realm of Torah that allows for man’s creative input. With the giving of the second tablets, there­fore, fruitful effort in Torah study became necessary and pos­sible.14

Accepting the Torah with Teshuvah

The first tablets were given to the Jewish people when, in the words of our Sages,15 “Their impurity had ceased,” and they were on the level of tzaddikim, “righteous men.” The second tablets, by contrast, were given after they had commit­ted the sin of the Golden Calf and repented. At this point their divine service followed the path of baalei teshuvah, those who turn to G‑d in repentance.

Unlike the tzaddik, the baal teshuvah must rely primarily on his own efforts. The divine service of the tzaddik is aided by the natural tendency within man to act righteously. Since this tendency is weakened through sin, the baal teshuvah has to summon up inner energies in his striving to develop a new bond with G‑d.

Beginning Creation Anew

Immediately after completing the year-long Reading of the Torah we start again:16 “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” This reading reminds us of man’s input in Torah, for it is through our efforts in the study and practice of Torah that we become G‑d’s partners in creation,17 transforming the world into a dwelling place for Him.18

The ultimate expression of the world as G‑d’s dwelling place will come in the Era of the Redemption, when we will merit the revelation of “the new heaven and the new earth which I (G‑d) will make.”19 May this take place in the imme­diate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,Vol. XIV, Simchas Torah