We rejoice this week. We rejoice not in triumph or the memory of triumph; our feast commemorates no victory nor earthly gain nor is it a feast of aspiration after any good that is to befall us here or hereafter. Our rejoicing is a rejoicing in the Lawâ€”Simchat Torah. We rejoice during these days from age to age because we took upon ourselves the yoke and burdenâ€”a heavy yoke and a grievous burden in all ages to all Jewsâ€”of our special Law, of our Torah, of our unique and incomparable responsibility to live by a law of our choosing, to fulfill not only our general obligations as men and citizens but our specific and heavy obligations as Jews.
It does not fundamentally matter from this point of view (which is the permanent and permanently valid one) precisely how we conceive of our Torah or how we embody it in concrete experience. There are those who, like our ancestors, still strive to practice all the 613 Mitzvoth; there are those who identify themselves with charity and with the defense of our people; there are those who spend their strength and goods toward the re-birth of our people here and in Eretz Israel. But whether they follow to the letter the Shulchan aruch or whether they comfort the poor and redeem the exiled or whether they toil and struggle in the Zionist cause, all Jews who run true to form and true to the eternal type live by a law of their choice and acceptance, by an inner compulsion, by a high and special ethical urgency and so not only on these two days but every day and in all their acts celebrate this peculiarly and uniquely Jewish feast of Simchat Torah, of rejoicing in the Law.
There is a well-known Talmudic legend to the effect that the Law was offered to one people after another among the peoples. Each people rejected it as too hard to bear and to fulfill. Israel accepted the Law. And why did Israel accept the Law? it is asked. Because Israel is a strong people. How true that is to both the history and the psychology of the Jewish people. We were at our strongest no more than a small and weak state at the mercy of mighty empires. We have been in exile for two millennia with no state or might at our command, with no worldly advantage and no show of power or beauty, and persecution and martyrdom and exile have always even to this day and this year followed upon brief and precarious periods of well-being and peace. Could any but a strong people have endured? Could any but a very strong people have survived?
Wherein lay our strength? What helped us to survive? Are we not weak as the leaves which the winds of autumn are sweeping from the trees? No, for our strength is in the Lawâ€”our strength has been in a moral steadfastness that has opposed itself from age to age to the pagan forces of the world. We have been crucified a hundred times; we are being crucified again today in Germany, in Eastern Europe, even in Eretz Israel. We shall survive, we shall come through, at long length we shall prevail if we hold to the Law, if we rejoice in the Law, if with every act and with every thought we cleave to that which so far has marked off Israel from the other peoplesâ€”obedience to a Law (whatever be the varying contents of that law from age to age) of its own choosing, submission to a self-imposed moral yoke. Well do we do to thank the Eternal in our morning prayer in humility and not in pride that he has chosen us and separated us by his choice from all the nations. For only by this separateness which consists in obedience to self-imposed moral and spiritual obligations have we survived not only biologically and empirically but as symbol and sign amid the turmoils and confusions of a pagan and unredeemed world of the power of the spirit and the feebleness of force.
It is curious to observe how the older obedience to the Law is interpenetrated among us with the latter. Last year in Paris, three men were sitting in a drawing-room: a wealthy Franco-American merchant, an eminent sculptor driven penniless from the third Reich and myself. Our hearts and minds were full of the fate of our people and we spoke of the burning immediate things of the hour. But presently we found ourselves speaking of the eternal historic symbol of that first exodus out of Egypt and the sculptor and I who had a little Jewish knowledge pieced together between us from memory a crucial passage in the original Hebrew and fell, like very Talmudists, to discussing the precise meaning of the terms. And suddenly the sculptor, who had gone to cheder in his long ago childhood, sprang up and cried: “Think of it, friends, we three modern men cannot meet in a modern drawing-room without involuntarily obeying the old command to discuss the Torah!” We raised our glasses. “Lechayim tovim!” We rejoiced in the Law.
There is, of course, too little rejoicing in the Law. Of the fifteen millions of Jews in the world, how many are Jewishly active? How many are busy saving their Jewishness and Israel in some worthy wayâ€”whatever that precise way may be for the individual? Among the nearly five millions of American Jews on how many can we count? What proportion of the Jewry in our great centers of population is actively devoted to the cause of Israel which ultimately and in a world that threatens to slide back into paganism, into pre-Noachic brutality, is also the good cause of mankind? Salvation for us and for the nations can come only from self-elected obedience to a higher law, to the essentials of our Law. Let us then more and more both by our aspirations and our actions make every day a rejoicing in the Law and all of life a prolonged Simchat Torah.