When we celebrate Torah, we’re sending a very strong message about what makes us happy
IN the late nineties, when I was newly married and living in Yerushalayim, I would walk home from the Mir through the Arzei HaBira park. These were the headiest days of the Shas party, as upstart Sephardim shook off decades of oppression and inequity, and their political party won too many seats and too much power for anyone to ignore it.
One night during election season, there was a Shas rally in that park, and the vibe and atmosphere was like nothing I had ever seen, pounding music and leaping bodies and full-throated cheers and a hysterical frenzy as Maran — Chacham Ovadiah Yosef — approached. When he took the mic to speak, there was a physical wave of reverence and loyalty, Maran’s army ready to do whatever it takes.
A yungerman came out of the Arzei shul as I walked by, a crusty litvishe type who had no use for any of it, the theatrics, the commotion, the holy-war tone of the whole rally.
He saw my wide eyes and told me, “Listen, heim osim hakol chagigot, they make everything into parties, and who doesn’t love a party?” He muttered a few more things and went back in to learn.
Thirty years later, the rest of the world has caught on to the strategy, and it’s wonderful.
For years, I would return from the annual Chabad Kinus Hashluchim burning with desire to be a shaliach. The passion! The euphoria! The sense of mission that consumed these people!
(The shlichus dreams rarely lasted more than a day or two when I realized that a) I am not a Lubavitcher chassid b) My wife considers Montreal exotic enough, thank you very much, and c) I don’t really have what it takes to fundraise, counsel, listen, teach, and inspire other Yidden while living in dangerous, primitive, or just plain weird conditions where you can’t get milk for your coffee unless you keep a cow in the backyard.)
It was the way they conveyed their joy in what they did, the feeling of privilege that enveloped everyone in that room as they danced.
I also joined 21 Kislev celebrations in Satmar. The yom hatzalah, the day upon which Rav Yoel Teitelbaum was saved, has become their independence day, when they mark the establishment of what has become an ideological superpower, a chassidus that rewrote the rules.
There, too, the atmosphere is electric, and when the theme song — “Becha Batchu Avoseinu” — plays, then there isn’t a person in that crowd of tens of thousands who doesn’t feel pride in the courage, the clarity, the unyielding tenacity of (and the extraordinary chesed that comes forth from) Satmar. This is their team, and they are all in.
More recently, I had the zechus of being one of the thousands in the Wells Fargo center earlier this month for the Adirei HaTorah gathering. It was one of those events that went beyond who spoke, what was said, or what was served; it was more about how it made you feel, the parts of you that woke up when you were there.
Torah — the cause of causes, the treasure at the core of the campaigns of Shas, the kiruv of Chabad and the shitah hakedoshah of Satmar — finally had its day of pure celebration.
This event celebrated our talmidei chachamim, the ones who made the decision to turn their backs on flipping, selling, negotiating, renovating, or calculating, instead choosing another zeman of Chezkas Habatim.
The theme was the benefit they bring to creation and their surroundings, and the gift they give those privileged enough to transform something as small and petty as mere money into part of that endeavor.
Since, in our heart of hearts, we all know this is true, it was easy to dance along.
It was done very 2022 — great sound, seamless ticketing and crowd control, a program that started and ended on schedule, inspiring speeches — but the concept being celebrated was 1312 BCE.
The day after the event, I was schmoozing with Rabbi YY Jacobson, whom I had noticed on the dais, and I was eager for his take.
(My kids would call this a T4, like a flex that I got to chat with Rabbi YY, but if you know how accessible he makes himself to anyone and everyone — the harder the question and more perplexed the asker, the more eager he is — you know that this is a shvache T4.)
He pointed out that the chiddush, beauty, and success of the Adirei HaTorah event was not just in the excitement and enthusiasm of the crowd, the joy of lomdei Torah and machzikei Torah, but something else as well.
“I loved watching the 17-year-olds at the event… they had this light in their eyes,” he said.
The stadium was full of bochurim, since the event immediately followed a Shabbos off from yeshivah, and all of them — whatever bumps they might have faced along the way, and whatever bumps they might still be facing — were on a high, feeling the same pride and happiness about the fact that this is their team.
There isn’t a frum Yid who doesn’t identify with this team in their heart, but it’s hard to cheer for a team whose message is one of hand-wringing, lament, panic, and gloom.
In Philadelphia, the message was upbeat, triumphant, grateful, and proud, a 20,000-strong simchas Torah, and the bochurim filling the sections were not there as props, or even as fans.
They were there as proof! The beautiful, enduring proof that this system is, baruch Hashem, alive and well!
One morning several years ago, after the post-Shacharis Mishnayos shiur at MTJ, a siyum was held on a masechta: a bit of herring, some kichel, and bourbon. Someone questioned the halachic necessity of making a siyum on a masechta Mishnayos, and the rosh yeshivah, Rav Dovid Feinstein, smiled.
“We’ve been in galus for a long time,” he said. “When we have reasons to celebrate, it’s good to use them.”
There are enough reasons to make a party, baruch Hashem, enough excuses for “chagigot.”
We’re learning how to use them, and that doing so is not just about having a good time — when we celebrate Torah, we’re sending a very strong message about what makes us happy, and that itself is the surest way to make the party go on!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 918)
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