Today, Wednesday, Sept. 29, marks the end of this fall’s Jewish High Holy Days that spanned an entire month this year. Today is a special celebration called Simchat Torah that one might translate as “The Rejoicing of Torah.” The Torah, commonly known as the Pentateuch, starts with “In the beginning…” and the story of Adam and Eve and ends with the death of Moses on the edge of the promised land.
The Torah has followed the Jewish people for 2,500 years. A thousand years ago, our sages instituted the practice of reading and studying this sacred text annually. The stories were divided up so each week and each holiday would have assigned to it a specific portion of the Torah to pore over. In a year’s time you would have parsed through the entire scroll.
Simchat Torah is a paradoxical holiday when we celebrate endings and beginnings, the end of a cycle and the beginning of the next all in one day, all — actually — in the very same moment. Because our tradition insists that Torah reading should never be interrupted, part of the celebration includes chanting the last verses in Deuteronomy and, immediately thereafter, the first verses of Genesis. Most synagogues that have multiple Torah scrolls prepare one for Deuteronomy and a second for Genesis. Our community only has one scroll, which we unroll completely in a large vertical circle so that the beginning and end touch each other. It truly is a sight to behold!
The fact that, at Simchat Torah, we join the narration of Moses’s death to that of the creation story affirms — on a quasi-cosmic level — the divine cycle of destruction-into-creation, of death into life. We chant in these last verses that Moses dies “al pi Adonai — from the mouth of the Eternal” (Deuteronomy 34:5). And then, immediately following, God’s mouth speaks creation into being. Speech, sound, is but energy, vibrations emerging out of the silence and returning into the silence. Creation and our being in it are but energy, vibrations, emerging from and returning to Source moment to moment, life-cycle after life-cycle.
Each year, Simchat Torah invites us to humbly renounce any sense of mastery and to mindfully begin our Judaism anew, as we prepare to study the same texts, celebrate the same holidays, pray the same prayers. Such cyclical repetition is meant to be a spiritual upward spiral. We must find more meaning, more expressions of true spirituality each year in these same Torah narratives, these same holidays, these same practices, or be condemned to spiritual stagnation. Ultimately, we must continue to challenge ourselves away from the already known and toward the transcendent.
May we all find such courage.
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
Read more of the Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2021 issue.