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Drash on Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah 2023

Rabbi Moshe Givental

North Shore Temple Emanuel

Throughout the last month-and-a-half Jews around the world have been neck-deep in cheshbon hanefesh, the soul accounting which we are called upon to do in order to prepare for the new year. We have been taking our lives apart, reflecting upon them, and sorting how to put the sparks and fragments back together in new and more life-giving ways. Sukkot arrives on the scene when we’re exhausted and simply need to collapse into a big embrace. The Sukkah is that physical embrace. An expression of faith from God that the spiritual soul accounting we’ve done this year has been enough and now all that’s left is celebration. Here we dwell in that Sukkat Shalom – Sukkah of Peace which we’ve been praying for all year. We return to and are confronted with a more ancient sense of home, in nature, as we’re confronted by the elements. Kohelet – The Book of Ecclesiastes confronts us further with the paradox of joy in a world which is also painfully uncontrollable and daunting. In the face of this, I want to leave you with a Hassidic story of the beloved Reb Zusha and his brother Reb Elimelech.

It happened many years ago, in the 18th century, in Ukraine, that Reb Zusha and Reb Elimelech were thrown into jail on trumped up charges. As the guard threw them into their cell he pointed to a bucket in the corner which was to serve as their toilet. Recognizing that halakhah forbids prayer and Torah study within sight of a toilet, Reb Zusha collapsed into tears. His big brother ran to comfort him but Reb Zusha was inconsolable. “How can you not cry? How can we live like this? I can give up all my freedoms for Torah, but how can I live without Torah or prayer?”

Reb Elimelech thought deeply and for a while, but eventually his frown turned into a smirk and then into laughter. “Little brother,” he said, “by not learning or praying, we are actually keeping Torah, and in the most challenging way that God could ever ask of us.” Our non-prayer and non-learning, each and every moment, with each and every breath, even when we’re asleep, is our sanctification of God’s Name! The brothers were so tickled by this turn of events that they got up and began to dance, even picking up and carrying the bucket over their heads as if it was the Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah. The rest of their cell-mates thought they had lost their mind but as it was a hilarious sight and there was nothing better to do, so they joined the brothers in the dance.

When the guard heard and saw all of this dancing he stormed in, pushed the brothers to the floor, and ripped the bucket from their hands. “From now on, you’ll have to go outside in the snow to use the toilet.” The brothers jumped up for joy and continued to dance. They didn’t mind the cold. Now they could dance, study Torah, and pray!

On this coming Simchat Torah, may all Israel merit to have even 1/100 of the kind of creativity as well as the familial love and support which Reb Elimelech and Reb Zusha shared with each other.

Find more Parashat Hashavua