This week we complete the reading of the Book of D’varim (Deuteronomy) and immediately proceed to the beginning of B’reishit (Genesis), as is the practice on Simchat Torah, Festival of Rejoicing in the Torah, observed in the Reform Movement (and in Israel) from this Friday at sundown through Saturday at sundown. The Torah ends by recounting the death of Moses in an eloquent, compact eulogy that extols his virtues and accomplishments; the beginning of the Torah describes God’s creation of a world affirmed as “good.”
The Torah begins:
When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light!”—and there was light (Genesis 1:1-3).
Following the last words of Deuteronomy, we could easily continue reading the narrative of the Israelites’ entrance into and conquest of the Promised Land, as recounted in the Book of Joshua. Simchat Torah instead tells us to start over. We thus might use this holiday as an opportunity to imagine a narrative that takes place in the imaginary space, that momentary breath, just before we begin the first words of B’reishit.
The Rabbis discuss a number of things that preceded the world described in the first chapter of Genesis. Of the six listed in the great collection of midrash called B’reishit Rabbah (1:4), the first will sufficiently occupy today’s discussion: Before creating the world, the Rabbis teach, God created Torah, a blueprint for the cosmic order.
Why would the Rabbis teach that Torah preceded the Creation?
Torah asserts the purposefulness of human existence and a Divine intention underpinning the cosmos. The Rabbis imagined Torah as a prerequisite for Creation, without which God could not have proceeded with the world, the sun and moon, the land and sea and living beings.
As for us, Torah can provide a spiritual anchor. Each week we read a segment not only to understand the literature in its historical context, but also to derive wisdom that intersects our own life and experience. Torah is not history. It is our story. In Adam and Eve, we see ourselves toiling to make a living, raise a family and understand our difficult realm on the other side of Paradise. In Abraham, who demanded God’s justice for the innocent of Sodom and Gomorrah, we find inspiration to speak truth to power. In Sarah and Rachel, who struggled to conceive, we empathize with all couples who seek help with infertility. In Jacob, who wrestled with the night messenger, we see ourselves struggling with great challenges that bring pain, but from which we might extract blessing. Miriam represents that part of us who longs to dance and sing exuberantly, uninhibited. Aaron the High Priest can be seen in the part of us drawn to ritual and self-sacrificing service to others and our temples. Through Moses we glimpse lands of Promise that we wistfully realize we may not enter. The rabbis aptly taught, “Turn it [Torah] over and over again because everything is in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). Simchat Torah is the ideal moment to reaffirm our commitment to return to Torah.
For an understanding of right and wrong, our people have always turned first to Torah. Above and beyond the Ten Commandments which delineate essential “Thou shalt nots,” our Sages identified 613 mitzvot that form the backbone of a lifelong quest for holiness. These include the myriad “Thou shalts” that we too often forget. We fulfill “obligations without measure,” says the Talmud: “to honor parents, perform acts of love and kindness, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, pray earnestly, share joy with celebrants and sorrow with mourners, make peace when there is strife; and,” we read at last, “talmud Torah k’neged kulam: the study of Torah leads to them all” (Mishnah Pei-ah 1:1).
Torah speaks about our past, present, and future—our roots and lives and destiny. In epic prose and poetry, it records a story of enslavement and escape. It tells of struggles with peoples of different languages, culture, and values, the seduction of false gods of silver and stone, and the false gods of burgeoning wealth and power. Ultimately it tells a story of hope and redemption.
If you are a teacher, a lawyer, a judge, a physician, a business executive, a salesperson, a chef or an artist, Torah has something to tell you about the practice of your profession. If you are a parent, a child, a sibling, a spouse or a friend, Torah has something to tell you about love, peace, and respect. If you have ever experienced illness, Torah can show you healing. If you know loss, Torah can show you courage.
Torah is the birthright of every Jew, the one thing our people has always shared, regardless of geography, ethnicity, politics, or ideology. Our modest weekly e-mail encounter simply continues a tradition carried forth without interruption from antiquity.
Look into the sacred scroll and find yourself there inscribed, this Simchat Torah and every day. Chag Samei-ach!
1. Think of a time when the weekly parashah directly “intersected” with something you experienced or encountered that same week. How did Torah inform your personal experience? How did your experience comment on the Torah portion?
2. On Simchat Torah, the person honored to complete the final aliyah to the Torah is called the “ChatanTorah” or “Bridegroom of Torah” and the one honored to pronounce the first blessing over Genesis is called the “ChatanB’reishit” or “Bridegroom of B’reishit.” What do you think the poetic use of the term chatan (bridegroom) says about the Jewish people? What meaning might you ascribe to this idiom?
3. Throughout Jewish literature, Torah is likened metaphorically to various images: light, water, a tree and so on. Name a traditional image for Torah, or come up with your own, and explain why you are attracted to this metaphor.
For Further Learning
Beginning next week, the Union for Reform Judaism will offer a new weekly Torah commentary as the Monday issue of the 10 Minutes of Torah series, called Reform Voices of Torah. This commentary will be written by some of the most prominent thinkers in our movement: Rabbis Zoë Klein, Lawrence Kushner, Rifat Sonsino and Nancy Weiner, with additional comment and response from a variety of writers. You can also download the podcast at urj.org.
Sukkot-Chanukah Connection Contest Winners
Congratulations to our winners from last week’s quiz and to all of you who learned something in the process!
Skylar Cohen from Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, CA and Susan Proctor from Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, North Carolina were our first two correct answers.
Many people noticed similarities between the holidays:
- Both are celebrated for eight days (Sukkot for one week plus the concluding holiday Sh’mini Atzeret).
- Hallel is recited on both holidays.
- The reasoning for Beit Shammai’s argument that the lights of the chanukiah should go from eight to one (decreasing over the holiday rather than increasing) is based on the pattern of bull sacrifices offered on Sukkot (which also decrease in number).
These similarities are clues to the connection, which is that the heroes of the Chanukah story were unable to offer sacrifices in the Temple during Sukkot due to the war. When they recaptured the Temple in Kislev, they cleaned it, rededicated it, and celebrated a belated Sukkot.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake is Associate Rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, having served at Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island from 2000 to 2003. He sits on the HUC-CCAR Joint Commission for Sustaining Rabbinic Education and is involved in the Westchester Global Coalition on Poverty and AIDS. Rabbi Blake is a summa cum laude graduate of Amherst College, where he majored in English literature. In 2000, he received his Rabbinical Ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Rabbi Blake serves as an Alumni Recruiter for HUC-JIR.