D’var Torah for Simchat Torah (Parashiyot V’zot ha’brachah/B’reishit)
Good morning everyone. I’d like to offer some thoughts today on what I think is one of the most beautiful and profound moments in the annual Torah cycle: the transition from the end of the year to the beginning.
The readings for today are really an amalgam of two parshiyot: what we read last Saturday, and what we will read next Saturday. The end and the beginning. Moses’s death and the creation of it all. In between these two shabbatot, on this day of rejoicing in the gift that has held our religion together through the ages, our holy text, the Torah, which really, if you think about it, is a whole creation story unto itself: the creation of the Jews – our national founding myth, if you will – we are thrown into a strange moment, where the end of the Israelite’s mourning period for Moses upon his death, and the anointment of Joshua as the new leader of the people is met not with the next chapter, but instead, with B’reisheit barah Elohim et ha’shamayim et ha’aretz: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
I think that it is no accident that just as we read of the death of Moses, and we are told, “Never again would there arise a prophet in Israel like Moses, who God singled out, face to face,” we are transported right back to the beginning, to the creation of everything. Before Moses. Before Egypt. Before the Israelites. Before the Akedah. Before Abraham. Before the Great Flood. Before Adam and Eve. Before existence, plain and simple. From the end of the story, we start again.
But the story of Moses doesn’t end without a poetic moment of promise. Not for Moses himself, of course. He knows his fate. But for the nation he has shepherded through the desert, the Israelites. Moses blesses them and he leaves them, and he heads up to Mount Nebo, opposite Jericho, we are told, and God shows him “the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain–the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees–as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross there.’” Our moment of tragedy, the loss of the man described as the greatest leader Israel has and will ever have had, is coupled with hope: that the Israelites will cross over into the Promised Land. A lineage is traced back through the Torah, tying it all neatly together, and Moses exits, stage left. We can imagine it as if we are watching a movie (I don’t know about you, but I always see Charlton Heston when I think about Moses): the screen fades to black. But instead of the closing credits, we get a voiceover: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Instead of ending, our story is on a loop. It starts again.
And if this metaphor of circularity isn’t enough, we come to the haftorah, the beginning of the Book of Joshua, where the promise that underpins the entirety of the Torah begins to be realized. God speaks to Joshua and outlines the plans: invade the land across the Jordan, I will be with you to protect you, and grant you the inheritance I promised your forbears.
I’d like to briefly link this to the spiritual experience that we have just undergone over the past few weeks. We celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the new year of the calendar, which remembers capital-C creation. We spent ten days reflecting, repenting, and we came to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day, we reenacted our deaths while still very much alive: we wore white, we fasted, we refrained from all those things that make any day into a normal day, and we asked to be forgiven before the final judgment was made. And as Ne’ilah drew to a close, and we davened a quick (and hungry) ma’ariv, we were reborn into a new year. Hopefully a little wiser for the effort.
Now, as we find ourselves at the end of this holiday cycle, as we read the last chapter of Torah, and before we resume the year as it is usually lived, we are reminded: as the story comes to an end, and yes, sadly, it ends with the death of the protagonist, we are reborn into something freshly created. And guess what? It’s here, in this newness, that promises and dreams get fulfilled.
In the early 20th century, there lived a German theologian and philosopher named Franz Rosenzweig. His life was the stuff of legend: an assimilated Jewish young man decides he will convert to Christianity, but before doing so opts to go to shul one last time – for Yom Kippur. Things don’t go quite as he had planned: he was so moved by this service that he abandons his upcoming conversion and becomes, basically, ba’al teshuvah. He never forgets his draw towards Christianity, though, and he dedicates a huge amount of his career to explaining the correctness of both Judaism and Christianity, religions he saw as each possessing a particular mission in the unfolding of world history. His writings on the Jewish holidays in his magnum opus, the Star of Redemption, a book which he wrote in fragments and sent home to his wife on postcards from his station at the front during the First World War, are really remarkable.
I’d like to share briefly his thoughts on the conclusion of Sukkot:
As the Sabbath leads back into the workday, so this conclusion of the spiritual year, without first needing once to enjoy life fully as a conclusion, must go back again directly into the beginning. Following directly from the last word of the Torah is the first one in the holiday of the rejoicing of the Torah, of Simchat Torah; and the old man who rules in the name of the community over this transition is not called “husband,” that for ever and ever only “bridegroom of the Torah.”
The “bridegroom” inhabits that moment of transition – that liminal space – between bachelorhood and marriage. He awaits his Kallah. Once the ceremony is over, he’s no longer the Chatan – he’s something else entirely. But in our tradition of the Chatan of Simchat Torah,that moment of being Chatan is never finished. The Chatan Torah doesn’t sign a ketubah, and he certainly doesn’t break a glass. He is under the chuppah with his beloved forever. And his beloved is the Torah. And so, the Torah ends and it begins again. And we, the community, are never granted the satisfaction of a neat and tidy ending. We live our religious life in this looping of the story of the history of the Israelite nation.
Those who have heard me speak about what I love about Judaism before have probably heard me say that I love the performative nature of the rituals: the fact that our prayers, our readings, and our practice often as us to act out some sort of moment – a relationship, a transformation, or even a time in history. To me, this moment of Simchat Torah is no different: we have spent a week reenacting the life of the desert generation, living (or, well, at least eating) in temporary shelters, exposed to the elements, looking up at the sky. And now, on the precipice of a new beginning, we finish the story and begin again. And we celebrate it: the end that never ends. The death of a great leader that leads to the fulfillment of a great promise, but only in the extra reading, but that, leaving out the supplement, that turns right back around to the beginning, where there earth was “tohu v’vohu“ – unformed and void.
The African-American novelist Toni Morrison once said that “Narrative is radical, creating us at every moment that it is being created.” This can be said of the Jewish tradition, a tradition of words and stories, dialogues and disputes. We tell the same stories year after year, giving shape to our lives. But at the same time, we look for new meaning in our old texts. We look for each end of a story to lead to a new beginning.
In her beautiful critique of contemporary culture, The Future of Nostalgia, a book which I am currently reading for the third time, Svetlana Boym describes a condition she calls, “Hypochondria of the Heart.” This condition? Nostalgia: that peculiar longing for home that can’t quite seem to be satisfied no matter what is out there, because that home has become idealized, or has been lost in the past. I could talk about her study for hours, and I highly recommend the book for anyone who is interested in ideas of exile and memory, history and loss, cities and memorials, especially in the former Soviet Union. But I will leave it at this: it is precisely that ill-at-ease feeling of nostalgia against whichSimchat Torah attempts to inoculate us as a community. We don’t get to stop at the loss. The year ends, Moses dies, but we don’t stop there. We aren’t left to mourn any idealized community or leader. In our jump from the image of the death of Moses to the creation of everything, we are reminded that it all starts again. Which means that it always does, and that it always will. The Torah, the book that binds the Jewish community in the absence of a physical home (the modern state of Israel aside), never ends. Our home is never lost. It is just transformed – end into beginning. And in that transformation, we are delivered.
This D'var Torah was delivered at Congregation Darchei Noam on Monday, October 8, 2012.