Several years ago my firstborn son became Bar Mitzvah towards the end of Sukkot, amidst the preparations for Simchat Torah. As is well known, no matter when it occurs, reading from the Torah plays a central, if surprising, role in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. As with most things, it is worth examining this custom more critically.
On a purely halachic level, reading from the Torah is a strange thing to do when a boy becomes bar mitzvah. There are certain things that a child is not allowed to do before this point in his life, such as making Kiddush for others. One might expect that something of this nature would be at the center of the celebration, showing to all that the boy has acquired the new legal status of adulthood. Yet such is not the case.*
It appears that reading from the Torah may represent something entirely different. Perhaps, we can think of it as an induction ceremony into Jewish adulthood. Not an induction where one takes an oath holding onto the Torah, representing his commitment to what the Torah represents. Rather, this induction occurs by his performing a basic act of Torah study. The main message to the boy coming of age is that Torah study is the central experience involved in being a full-fledged Jew. He is being told that only through this, will he be able to take his place in the perpetuation of the Jewish people; this now becomes his ultimate responsibility.
History bears witness, that it is the excitement and commitment of Torah study that keeps the Jewish people going. As such, the Talmud (Sotah 21a) makes a critical distinction between the power generated by Torah study on the one hand and the performance of other mitzvot on the other. Borrowing a verse from Shir ha Shirim, the Talmud compares the power of Torah study to a love that cannot be quenched – as opposed to other mitzvot, whose power can be quenched by sin. Our sages are telling us that long-term success will not be guaranteed by mitzvot, but only by the passion implicit in Torah study.
For most of the year, passion for Torah is something that does not belong to everyone. During Sukkot, however, this passion becomes more accessible. Thus, Sukkot is called Z’man Simchatenu, The Time of our Joy. In the time of the Beit haMikdash, the highlight of that joy was a celebration called the Simchat Beit haSheueva. The Talmud (Sukkah 53a) tells us that the greatest Torah scholars were at the center of the celebration, dancing, juggling, etc. Presumably, the unquenchable love generated by Torah study was turned outward for all to see.
The Jewish people's great collective genius sought to make the connection between joy and Torah more explicit than was the case even in the Simchat Beit haSheuvah. And so we culminate the Torah-reading cycle specifically at the end of Sukkot, a holiday known for its great joy. As the more likely time to have finished the Torah reading cycle would have been Rosh haShanah or even Shavuot, it would be difficult to view the timing of Simchat Torah as a mere coincidence. Moreover, the Jewish people stress the connection between Simchat Torah and Sukkot by borrowing customs of the latter for the former. The most obvious example is the hakafot that have become the most central custom of Simchat Torah. The Jewish people wants to emphasize that Torah must be associated with positive emotions. In making this connection, we assert that only through an emotional relationship with Torah study will the Torah guarantee our survival, both personally as well as nationally.
When we truly develop our love for the Torah, then the holiday of Simchat Torah becomes a natural expression of joy at the personal gift that we find in our Torah study. We thank G-d for giving us a lifelong companion that is with us when we are alone, as well as when we are with others. We thank G-d for giving us a book that is much more than a book. He has given us an object that stretches and expands our minds, even as it inspires our souls. As could only be done by G-d, He has made this book the ultimate consummation of every individual's interests - even as he has made no two people with the exact same interests. In the Torah, He has given us the best life has to offer.
*I am following the simple understanding of the halacha, even though there are opinions that a minor is not able to read from the Torah either – see Shu't Yechaveh Da'at 4:23 for a more thorough discussion of this issue.