Simchat Torah: Endings and Beginnings

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah

Greetings on a glorious autumn day! I just came down the valley from
Albany and the mountains were gorgeous with colors and wind. Not only
that, but if the leaves are changing, then it’s just about time to
switch from the end of our Torah reading cycle back to “in the
beginning . . . ” This weekend is the two day holiday which marks the
end of the fall holiday season, Shemini Atzeret, the second day of
which is called Simchat Torah. “Shemini Atzeret” come from the fact
that it is the eigth day of assembly after the seven day Sukkot
holiday; in the Diaspora, where festivals are observed for two days,
the second day of Shemini Atzeret is the day of concluding the yearly
Torah reading cycle and turning back to Bereshit/ Genesis. (Even in
synagogues which use a three year or greater Torah reading schedule,
Simchat Torah is the day of concluding that year’s cycle.)

There’s something quite moving in concluding D’varim/ Deuteronomy,
lifting the scroll, and then immediately reading the creation
narrative in the opening verses of Genesis. D’varim ends with the
death of Moshe, who has been the center of the Torah narrative since
the first chapters of Shmot/Exodus. Moshe dies, is buried in an
unmarked grave, and the people mourn for 30 days- and then we turn
right back to the story of the creation of the world, as if we simply
can’t wait to read the familiar stories all over again.

The death of Moshe is poignant and sad, but the creation story is full
of hope and the promise of blessing. To hold these two emotions in our
hearts on the same day is itself a summary of the entire Torah, which
teaches us both the reality of human limitations and the unlimited
potential to experience life as a gift from God. Moshe dies with his
dream of reaching the Promised Land unfulfilled- as most of us die
with some dreams unfulfilled and relationships unconcluded. Yet we are
bidden to be anything but cynical, because the story of creation
teaches us that there are always new beginnings, new possibilities,
new hopes for renewal in a world of life, a world which God called “good.”

Moshe’s death at the end of the 40 year sojourn is paradigmatic:
life’s journey is not infinite, and awareness of this inescapable fact
can orient us to live each day of our “40 years in the wilderness”
with great care and love. Yet awareness of life’s finitude need not
make us somber- Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday, with dancing and
singing, because Torah itself teaches us to live maximally in God’s
Presence, as if we were witnessing the creation of the world each
moment. We dance with the Torah because it teaches us not to despair,
to appreciate the gift of life rather than living in the fear of
death, and most of all, to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that
each day creation is made “good” through a renewal of the
lovingkindness which which both we and the world are fashioned.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach [happy holidays],


PS- for more about Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, go to the first
link, and for the Torah readings for each day, go to the second:

For a summary of the Torah portion and some family discussion
questions, go to the next link, and for a “kid’s Torah” version of the
end of D’varim, go to the one after that:

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