Kohelet is the perfect book to be read on Sukkot, zman simchateinu, “the time of our joy.” Kohelet tells us repeatedly to try to enjoy life while it lasts, because everything in this world is temporary and fleeting. Ultimately, we all meet the same end, and stand in judgment before God. 


The holiday season of the month of Tishrei passes, and we sit in the middle of Chol Hamoed Sukkot. The holiday of Shmini Atzeret, whose second day is normally Simchat Torah, will come, pass over us, and move along until it returns in 5782. As we read in Kohelet, “the sun rises, the sun sets, and it returns to the place from which it rises again” (1:5). This year, as we keep our community safe during a pandemic, we forgo dancing hakafot with the Torah scrolls on Sunday. Sunday will be Yom Tov, but without any of the usual celebrations that come with it. 


How is this zman simchateinu? How can we practice simchah without dancing and singing? 


The Shulchan Aruch (OH 529) tells us that simchat yom tov involves fine foods and fine clothes. It also tells us that we should devote half our energies of Yom Tov to Torah study and half to eating and drinking. Just as we should eat and drink sumptuously, we should also study “sumptuously.” This means studying Torah for pleasure, and taking joy in the text and the discussion of it. 


How can we study “sumptuously?” One way is studying without the pressure of obligation or deadline (of course Torah study is a primary obligation in Judaism, but there is no specifically assigned text on Shmini Atzeret). As was written about Achashverosh’s wine feasts, “and the drinking was according to the law, without compulsion, for the king had established among all the officers of his house, that everyone should do according to their own pleasure” (Esther 1:8). There are Midrashim that liken wine to Torah, and seeing Torah as a delicacy like wine is essential to making it part of simchat yom tov. Drink your Torah freely, without compulsion.


Another way is through variety. Just as a lavish meal is made of many courses, so too can Torah be on Yom Tov. We finish reading the Torah with parashat Vezot Habrachah and begin again with the seven days of Creation. We can start with that as an appetizer, or use it as our main dish. Next can come the commentaries. What do we make of the fact that Rashi has a problem with the Torah starting with the story of Creation instead of the first commandment?


When we tire of Torah study, we might nap, exercise, have a piece of rugelach, or read another book. These are also simchat yom tov. 


These pleasures of thinking, learning, resting, eating, drinking, or laughing are all perfectly in line with the simchah that this holiday asks of us. As the rain falls and makes its melodic sounds as it spatters the trees and our window panes, there is beauty for us to enjoy. All these things, which are as passing as the day of Shmini Atzeret itself is, are sources of simchat yom tov.


Next year, we may or may not dance hakafot again with the Torah scrolls. Someday, we will. This year, our simchah is a quiet joy. Build that joy for yourself. Make something special in the kitchen! Prepare your pleasure reading. Have clean blankets and clean clothes ready. A beautiful weekend of quiet joy is before us.


Shabbat Shalom,

Moadim Lesimchah,

Chagim Uzmanim Lesason!

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