Rabbi Ozer Moszkowski offers some thoughts on the value of Simchat Torah for children.
I remember as a child, waiting patiently, through the intense days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, feeling like the adults were the ones upon the stage and I was peering in from the sidelines.
And then came Simchat Torah, this was our turn! The fun and excitement in shul was for us, the sweets and party bags were for us! This time the adults looked on from the sidelines.
Simchat Torah was formulated by the Sages in the 6th century, at a time when the Jewish people had lost our Holy Temple, the Priestly service and festival pilgrimages, the fabric of Jewish celebration and practice had all but come to a devastating end. It was time to establish a new way to celebrate the festival of Shemini Atzeret. It had to be something which could be practised by everyone, anywhere, something which would ensure Jewish continuation and connection for generations to come, something for a people who had never seen the splendour and beauty which was Sukkot with the Temple. The answer was simple: Make it about the children.
Abie Rottenberg is a prolific orthodox ballad composer. His soul-stirring compositions always bring me to tears. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, many of his ballads are Holocaust stories.
One of my personal favourites – a song I first heard when I was just a young boy and it touched me to the core – is called, ‘The Place Where I Belong’. It personifies the story of a Torah scroll from Kiev, sharing its excitement and anticipation as it is lovingly written by Yankele the scribe. When finally completed, the scroll delights in the joyous energy of the town as they sing and dance it to the ‘little wooden shul’, held tight by the rabbi as he implores the congregation: “No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old, live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.” And indeed, they do: “…I saw old men die, the children grow. But never in a century, did I miss my turn once, for the fathers they had left me with their sons.”
WWII arrives and the Torah is hidden in a cellar where it remains for the duration of the war, abandoned. After the war, it is found and sent to a museum in America where it’s placed on display. But it still feels lost and alone. It longs to be at the “place where I belong.”
Every year, when we sing and dance with the Torah scrolls, I think of Abie’s song and I hear the Torah’s cry. For it is not a relic of our past but our “tree of life” – a guide to our present and the hope for our future. Not a display item but something we are to lovingly use and cherish.
As I watch the children running around collecting sweets and making noise this Simchat Torah, while holding the Sefer Torah close against my chest singing and dancing with it, I will be praying too. Praying that we always remember this message. Praying that we “live by the words [we] find inside [its] soul”. And praying that our future generations will proudly proclaim: “This is the place where I belong.”