The festival of Simchat Torah comes at the very end of high holiday season, just over three weeks from the start of the Jewish New Year. Like most holidays, Simchat Torah is honored by ritual candle lighting, special meals, and added prayer services. It is also distinguished by two unique ceremonies: 1) joyous dancing around the synagogue lectern with the Torah Scrolls in hand; 2) reading in the synagogue from the closing section of the Five Books of Moses—and then immediately starting the cycle of Torah study over again by reading from the first chapter of the first book, The Book of Genesis. In some circles, people toast “l’chaim!” (“To Life!”) to enhance the joyous spirit of the day.
For Professor Wiesel, Simchat Torah carried many special associations. First, it was his birthday. Second, he repeatedly evokes the profound effect of having witnessed in the mid-1960s the fervent Simchat Torah celebration of thousands in the main Moscow synagogue. Third, he frequently refers to the merit of Jews who, under other oppressive conditions, saw it as essential to continue the observance of this Torah-centered festival with customary joy. And fourth, his general focus on the theme—and experience—of beginning anew dovetails with the Simchat Torah practice of starting the Torah afresh. For Elisha Wiesel, the power of the Simchat Torah dancing spurs reflection on Moses’ being granted far-reaching vision—indeed, a form of spiritual foresight that extends to our own time and place. As always, may we be inspired by the Wiesels’ words, deeds, vision and devotion.
Modern Legends, December 14, 1967
[The Lubavitcher Rebbe] is a great man, and I like the way he’s conducting his farbrengen, his celebrations. One evening I spent with him couple of hours, and I tried to convert him to Vizhnitz, because I am a Vizhnitzer Hasid. It didn’t work.
A couple of months later, it was Simchat Torah. I came there. There were 2000 people in this hall. And I felt embarrassed because I had a beret, a French beret on with a rain coat. I didn’t look like a Hasid. I rather looked like James Bond, you know. And all of them, of course, looked like Hasidim. And because of my rain coat and my beret, the rebbe saw me. Everybody did.
So he was sitting on a stage like this surrounded with his Hasidim, and in the hall there were three tables in the form of a T. So he called me. I felt embarrassed, and I really didn’t want to go up. So I stayed there. He called me again. I still didn’t go. But then he said something to his people, and literally I was lifted up in the air by some 10 arms, and a second later I found myself standing on the table opposite him. Well, you can imagine how I felt.
And the rebbe says to me, “Reb Eliezer, you don’t come and say l’chaim and wish me l’chaim?” I said, “Rebbe, don’t you see? I went over a 1000 heads to come and wish you l’chaim.” He says, “Is that how one drinks l’chaim in Vizhnitz?” I said, “Rebbe, I am not in Vizhnitz. I am in Lubavitch.” So he says, “But do as one does in Lubavitch.” I say, “How does one do in Lubavitch?” He says, “I’ll show you.” And I was offered a glass full of vodka. So I say, “Rebbe, it’s very good, but in Vizhnitz one doesn’t drink alone.” He says, “In Lubavitch [we don’t] either.”
So he said, “l’chaim,” and I said, “l’chaim.” But I am a very poor drinker. So I sipped a very short swallow of vodka. And he says, “Is that how one drinks in Vizhnitz?” I said, “Rebbe, I am not in Vizhnitz. I am in Lubavitch.” So he says, “But then drink as one drinks in Lubavitch.” I said, “Show me, how does one drink in Lubavitch?” And he says, “I’ll show you.” He took his glass and emptied it. I said, “Rebbe, so strange, it’s exactly the same way one drinks in Vizhnitz.” And I drank it [all].
So he says, “Of course, for Vizhnitz it’s nothing.” I said, “How did you guess it’s nothing?” And I got a second glass. And my head was already turning. So I drank it. He drank it. And then he says, “Another one?” I said, “Of course.” The strange part about it is that the 2,000 Hasidim there were sure that the rebbe and me were talking roza d’rozim , you know, some very important -- who knows what Kabbalistic secrets!
Then when the rebbe saw that one more glass and I would be crushed: the first victim of Vizhnitz in Lubavitch. So he pitied me, and he says, “Well, what do you want me to wish you?” And I said, “Rebbe, a Vizhnitzer rebbe knows what to wish.” He says, “But we are in Lubavitch.” So I said, “Then do what you do in Lubavitch.” So he said, “Should I wish you a new beginning?”
Which was very clever, I must say, because it has so many levels. One, another glass of vodka. Two, he knew that Simchat Torah is my birthday. (They know everything, have such an intelligence!) Three, we were carrying on a dialogue for years about religion and Hasidism and faith and so forth. And, of course, he might have meant a new beginning. But I was so drunk that I dared to ask him, “Rebbe, a new beginning for both of us?” And he said, “For both of us.”
Come Celebrate, April 6, 2006
The first time I came back from the Soviet Union, in 1965, it’s here that actually I [gave] the first report about Simchat Torah, and I will never forget it. “When the time comes, and I will have to appear before the celestial tribunal, and they will ask, ‘What did you do with your life?’ I will say, ‘I was there in Moscow. I saw them dancing on Simchat Torah.’” And I told the tale of the dancing.
And I’m convinced that if we managed afterwards to open the gates of the Soviet Union, to bring liberty to hundreds of millions of people, they will never forget that the first to brave the dictatorial regime of Stalin, and Khrushchev, and Brezhnev were those young boys and girls who came to shul, to Arkhipova Street on Simchat Torah: to sing their allegiance to their people, our people, to their destiny.
Why Pray?, April 14, 2005
The celebrated Gaon of Vilna, one of the very, very great scholars of all generations (who was unfortunately a great adversary of the Hasidic movement as well), he said that the biblical law, v’samachta b’chagekha, that you must rejoice on the holidays--[that this law] is the most difficult commandment in the Torah.
And I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand. Those of us who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simchat Torah on the day of the celebration of the law; those Jews who studied Talmud by heart, while carrying stones on their back; those Jews who went on whispering the Sabbath songs while performing hard labor: they taught us how Jews should behave in the face of adversity. For my contemporaries a few generations ago, that commandment was one commandment that was impossible to observe--yet they observed it.
Women in the Bible: Miriam, October 14, 1993
Why do we begin [the 92Y lectures] on the Thursday after Simchat Torah? It’s symbolic, because on Simchat Torah we end the Torah and we begin again--which means we never cease to learn. You think you know everything? Begin again. To be a Jew is to be able to go on learning. And, to the last breath, to want to go on learning. Ahavat Torah, the love of Torah, is as powerful as Yirat Shamayim, the fear of heaven--and perhaps more pleasant.
Elisha Wiesel: Dvar Torah Hakafot, Carlebach Shul, 2017
Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest prophet of all time. So is it too much to imagine that as Hashem tells him הֶרְאִיתִ֣יךָ בְעֵינֶ֔יךָ -- “I have let you see it with your own eyes”--in tomorrow’s parsha reading, as he is given the gift of a far-seeing vision in the last seconds of his life - is it too much to imagine that Moshe is seeing far not only in space but in time? Does Moshe in those moments see the future of all that will befall Am Yisrael? Is it too much to imagine that he is not looking just at Eretz Yisrael but at our future as he sees the centuries and millennia unfold in front of him?
Can you imagine him seeing the entirety of Jewish history, all that has happened to us since his passing, all that is still to come? And do you think he sees a whirlwind blur as our people dance the Hakafot with and around his Torah across the generations, planets endlessly orbiting the spiritual Sun he fashioned up on the mountain ages ago? Or in that eternally long moment as he contemplates it -- can he pick out the individual stories of our people?
Does he see my story?
Does he see my father born on Simchat Torah 1928 in the Carpathian mountains, the joy my grandparents must have felt as a new soul was given into their care amidst the broader celebration?
Does Moshe see my father called up for his first Aliyah on Simchat Torah in 1941, reading the words that describe the last moments of Moshe’s life, even as a dark shadow looms larger and larger over the people of Sighet?
Does Moshe Rabeinu see what my father described amidst the depth of darkness in Auschwitz 1944, inmates without a Sefer Torah asking a young boy if he knows the Shma, and then raising him up and dancing with him as their own living Torah scroll?
Does he see my father on the other side of that longest of nights, does he see my father in Moscow in 1965 moved to tears and celebrating Simchat Torah with Soviet youth who are reconnecting with their Jewish identity after decades of not being allowed to practice?
Does he see me - in this very shul last year - standing in the back, my first Simchat Torah in shul since my Bar Mitzvah, not sure if I should participate given my status as a mourner saying kaddish, not sure how I can stay away -- as the power of the dancing and the passion of the daveners pulls me back towards my people?
Is it all too much to imagine?
Is it too much to imagine that Moshe is looking at us even now as we remember him and his unique relationship with God? Is it possible that he is looking at us in this moment right now? That the joy and wonder that emanates from this place in these exact moments are careening back through time and giving one small yet right now outsized packet of joy to our teacher among teachers?
And now let me ask you a different question, for those of you who daven every day and those of you who don’t, for those of you who have gone deep into the Talmud and those of you who have only just recently been captured by a Chasidic tune - for all of you who are here tonight, observant or non-observant, because you are connected to something that is timeless and central to who you are:
Is it possible in the face of these Hakafot tonight to NOT believe in a real, immediate and powerful connection back through our ancestors to the time of Moshe Rabeinu? And how could it be possible to NOT spend our dreams imagining that connection continuing on through our children?
Good Yom Tov and Chag Sameach.