Amidst global pain, Simchas Torah matters more than ever

How does one dance in the face of misery? “You don’t need to be happy to dance, but the act of dancing brings joy.” - Rabbi Yossi Refson


LOS ANGELES, Oct. 7, 2015 — In recent days, a crazed gunman killed several innocent people in Oregon. Then South Carolina got belted by the worst rain the state had seen in over a century. Flooding is still threatening to disrupt the state. There were more deaths.

This was only weeks after a Charleston church saw several parishioners murdered in cold blood. Meanwhile, Israel saw Jews become murder victims on successive days due to Palestinian terrorism.

These are just the events in the news. The everyday problems of a miserable economy and potential worldwide war leave little reason for hope. There is only one solution. In the immortal words of Balki Bartokomous, we must dance the dance of joy.

Jews spent Monday night dancing, singing and experiencing as much happiness as possible. The holiday was Simchas Torah. Simcha means “joy,” and the Torah is the Old Testament. Very religious Jews celebrated not out of want or need, but out of obligation. On Simchas Torah, Jews celebrate because they are ordered to do so.

The idea of forced fun makes people think of company team-building exercises. Simchas Torah is much better. It is mandatory real fun. In large cities such as Los Angeles and New York, congregants go “synagogue hopping” from party to party eating, drinking and dancing.

Celebrating when in a good mood is easy. How can a synagogue engage in such a ritual in the midst of such searing pain?

A conversation on this subject with Rabbi Yossi Refson proved very valuable. Rabbi Refson runs Chabad of Charleston, South Carolina. Chabad is an orthodox sect of Judaism that bases its teachings on the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. One of the rebbe’s teachings is that we are commanded to be happy. God wants us to be joyful.

Rabbi Refson had between 50 and 60 people show up for Simchas Torah revelry. People who could not get to the synagogue because roads were blocked were encouraged to stay home for their own safety. However, orthodox Jews frequently live within walking distance of their synagogue of choice. Anyone who could make it to synagogue was encouraged to be there.

Rabbi Refson pointed out how Simchas Torah can help people heal even when things seem awful on the surface.

“You don’t need to be happy to dance, but the act of dancing brings joy.”

People who dance passionately are helping to “stomp out the misery with your feet.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that, while many people in South Carolina are grieving over the storm damage, others are just suffering from the same ordinary life pains that afflict people all over the world every day.

Rabbi Refson noted that one attendee who had been feeling depressed came to Simchas Torah services and experienced an emotional turning point for the better.

A religious institution is about a relationship with God, but it is also about a sense of community. When people are dancing together or grieving together, they are reminded that they are not alone in this world. Spiritual healing and communal healing are invaluable emotional experiences.

Dancing on Monday night did not eliminate South Carolina’s pain. There are people who have lost their homes and even their lives.

Joy does not cure everything, but it is a necessary respite. For some people the coming days will bring a Carolina Panthers game. For others, it might be a community volunteer dinner at the local food pantry. For 20 politicians looking to become president of the United States, it could be organizing South Carolina community fundraisers.

When pain crowds out joy, the pain consumes us. When joy pushes pain to the side, even if for the briefest of times, joy triumphs over pain.

Rabbi Refson made it clear that there was zero consideration to canceling Simchas Torah celebrations.

For those who attended his synagogue’s celebration, there was eating, dancing and drinking. More important, there was desperately needed healing.

For this reason alone, in the toughest of times, Simchas Torah was more important than ever. It came at just the right time, not one moment too soon.


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