The happiness of Sukkot, about which I wrote last week, culminates in the holiday of Simchat Torah that we will celebrate next Tuesday. The name of the holiday is usually rendered into English as “The Holiday of Rejoicing with the Torah,” but its literal meaning “The Happiness of the Torah,” captures more concisely the centrality of happiness to the festival.
What is happiness and what makes us happy? These questions have been pondered by philosophers for thousands of years and remain hot topics today. In 350 BCE, the philosopher Aristotle argued that happiness was the purist human pursuit, and today there are entire industries devoted to happiness. We are sold thousands of products that promise happiness, and the most popular course at Harvard University was “How to be Happier” (taught by Israeli scholar Tal Ben-Shahar). In the title of his book on the topic, Jewish author Dennis Prager avers, “Happiness is a Serious Problem,” and while there is no obvious solution to this problem, understanding the holiday of Simchat Torah can give us great insight into this ancient conundrum.
Simchat Torah celebrates, simultaneously, the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle and its beginning. We read the final paragraphs of the Torah, then immediately commence the cycle anew by reading the Torah’s first chapter. In this ritual, we see the roots of happiness: Happiness is connected to repetition. While doing the same thing over and over again may seem tedious, Jews have always understood the importance of the rote as a route to happiness. Predictability is essential to happiness; when we encounter the familiar, we feel safe. When we know what to expect, we feel calm, confident, and happy. In raising children, few things are as important as establishing routines. Far from being boring, daily, weekly, and annual rhythms make for happy children.
When we rejoice in the Torah, we celebrate the Jewish tradition of interpretation. Exegesis has always been the creative outlet of Jewish people. While other peoples have expressed their inventiveness by authoring original works, Jews have exhibited their ingenuity by giving fresh expositions to ancient texts. Throughout the millennia of our history, Jewish writers from every century—from Rabbi Akiva to Rashi to Rambam—have made their mark with new Torah insights. Not only rabbis: prime ministers of Israel have written commentaries on the Bible or have offered classes on Torah thoughts. Today, a Google search will turn up countless creative explications of every verse of the Torah from Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs. Creativity, too, is essential to happiness. The human soul longs to create; it is a characteristic we have inherited from God, Creator of all.
Predictability and creativity are both essential to human happiness, though they appear to be at odds with each other. In fact, it is the balance between the two that leads to the greatest happiness. This is why, at Akiva, we carefully balance a creative approach to education with an ordered and orderly daily routine. We nurture the unique creative impulses of each student while maintaining a sense of comfort and safety in the familiar. This is one of the reasons we hear Akiva students say over and again how happy they are at our school.
When students are happy learners, they are the best learners. We have at Akiva a true Simchat Torah, a happiness in the study of Torah and the study of all aspects of God’s world.
Wishing you a happy Simchat Torah,