Simchat Torah: In Every Age a Joshua

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah

Moadim L’Simcha! [Happy Holidays!] We’re in the middle of what’s
turning out to be a blustery Sukkot, but we’re just a few days from
Simchat Torah, the holiday upon
which we end the yearly Torah reading cycle with D’varim [Deuteronomy]
and begin it immediately with Bereshit [Genesis.] Even synagogues that
use a three year or longer cycle for Torah readings go “back to the
beginning” on Simchat Torah; in so doing we show that Torah is not a
one-time event of ancient history, but a living document which we
reapply to our lives in new ways each year as we grow, mature and
change.

The haftarah, for Simchat Torah makes this point
in a different way, by showing us what happens after the Torah
completes its narrative with the Israelites on the far side of the
Jordan River, preparing to cross over. The haftarah picks up where
D’varim ends, with the opening verses of the book of Joshua. After
Joshua succeeded Moshe, he encouraged them to be courageous along the
way and warned them to be faithful to that which Moses taught them.
After all, the generation going into the Land had never known any
other leader but Moshe, and one can only imagine what a tremendous
change it was for them to move forward under Joshua.

As the scholar Michael Fishbane points out, in his commentary on the
prophetic readings, what happens at the beginning of the book of
Joshua is a move from direct revelation to a tradition of transmitted
teachings- that is, a shift in religious paradigms from one person
connecting to God on behalf of the people to a one in which learning
how to apply the tradition is the responsibility of every member of
the community. The transmission of leadership from Moshe to Joshua is
an opening for intellect, conscience, and reason to enter religious
discourse, values which are sorely needed in a world in which, then as
now, many religions find themselves torn between the timid faith of
their most progressive streams and the violent fundamentalism of the
most extreme adherents.

When Moshe gave the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he said: it’s up
to you to take the Israelites where I cannot go. By reading, on
Simchat Torah, the post-Torah story of how Joshua assumed leadership
of the people after Moshe, we reject a religion of personalities
rather than principles. We can have the tradition of Torah, and we can
have reason in applying it in each generation. We can be grounded in
the legacy of Sinai, and we can recognize that each age calls for new
leadership to apply Torah to its circumstances. We can be loyal to the
past and embrace the future with new vision. That balance is authentic
Judaism, and the real legacy of Moshe, our teacher.

with blessings for a joyous festival,

Rabbi Neal

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