Archive for Simchat Torah

V’zot Habracha: Breaking Tablets

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah/ Vzot Habracha

Greetings on this beautiful Hoshana Rabbah ! We’re about to go into the home stretch of the fall holidays, concluding with Simchat Torah, the festival of concluding the yearly Torah reading and immediately starting the new one. In just a few days, we’ll conclude the book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy with these verses:

“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moshe displayed before all Israel.” (D’varim 34:10-12)

It’s fitting that the book of D’varim concludes with the death of Moshe, the story of his burial, and final words of praise: these three verses are like a concise summary of the narrative from the beginning of Exodus through the end of the Torah, covering 40 years of sojourn. Our friend Rashi explains each piece of the last verse: the “great might” is receiving the tablets of the Torah by hand (the phrase “great might” is literally “strong hand.”) “Awesome power” is miracles in the wilderness, and “before all Israel” is. . . . . the breaking of the tablets of the law at Sinai, when Moshe came down the mountain to find the Israelites dancing before the golden calf. (Cf. D’varim 9:17 for the prooftext.)

Now, this is interesting. Of all the praises for all the great works of Moshe, the Torah concludes- according to Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash- with a reference to his angry breaking of the tablets at Israel’s not-finest hour?

I think Rashi wants us to remember Moshe not for his meteorological marvels but for the moral miracle of willingness to confront idolatry in all its forms- even, or perhaps especially, among his own people. Commentators suggest that these broken tablets were also carried by the Israelites from Sinai, perhaps as a reminder that the medium of Torah is not stone, parchment, or paper- but people. Moshe’s signature act of leadership, in this reading, is not his conflict with Pharaoh but his prophetic pursuit of truth even among his friends and community.

Here is Moshe in a moment of great risk: he sees his own people losing their way and breaks the very symbol of their sacred covenant if it will shock them back to consciousness. That is, indeed, a mighty miracle, but not one that comes from God- it’s one that comes from a brave heart and passionate spirit. Most of us will not encounter a burning bush, nor call forth manna from the heavens: but all of us have the opportunity to break tablets, speak bravely, and act from prophetic ethics. That, to me, is why we should always remember that Moshe’s greatest miracle was not from above, but from within: because such miracles are possible today, and perhaps needed more than ever.

Hag sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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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],

rnjl

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:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/index.htm

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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:

http://urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2488&pge_prg_id=14420&pge_id=3723

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=Canaan_Hora&cid=4693&state=det

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Simchat Torah/ Joy in the Torah

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah

Dear Friends:

We’re heading into the conclusion of the fall holidays tonight,
with the final days known as Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Technically, these are not the conclusion of Sukkot, but have
their own status as separate holy days – the subject of another
discussion, or a quick review on <www.myjewishlearning.com>.
The second day of Shemini Atzeret has become associated with
ending, and immediately “rebooting,” the yearly cycle of Torah
readings, hence the name “Simchat Torah, or “joy in the Torah.”
It’s typically celebrated with dancing, singing, and parading
around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls in a festive
procession. The final verses of Deuteronomy are read, and
immediately we begin again with the first words of Genesis,
starting over again for another year.

How wonderfully Jewish, to have a holiday to celebrate our
relationship with a book! In many ways, the very idea of Simchat
Torah- “joy in the Torah”- is a profound statement of Jewish
values and ideals. Yet there’s a valid question: why should we
take great simcha, or joy (to the point of dancing with it!), in a
book which contains stories of flawed ancestors, laws requiring
difficult self-restraint, great ritual detail pertaining to obsolete
institutions, narratives of national tragedy, and even clear
statements of ancient values which many may find offensive?

The Jewish answer is: because Torah study isn’t about
accepting a set of beliefs, it’s about struggling with the meaning
and possibilities of life, which can lead us to the truest joys.
Torah – represented by the scrolls of the Bible but ultimately
incorporating the entire range of Jewish sacred texts- gives us
joy because in dialogue with Torah and its many interpreters, we
are challenged to live according to our highest values; we are
challenged to make our lives vessels of God’s Presence, and we
are challenged to find the image of God in each person.

Norman Lamm, a great teacher of Hasidic thought, says that the
most basic kind of joy is rooted in love- we all feel joyous in the
presence of the those we love best, and it’s that kind of joy which
becomes a spiritual experience when we feel God’s Presence
as a friend and intimate One. Torah – in its broadest meaning- is
what helps make that happen: we rejoice over Torah not only
because it teaches us how to live, but because in relationship
with Torah, we come to regard life as a gift from a loving God, to
be made holy and good. Torah brings us into community, as
learners and seekers, and only in community do we fully realize
our potential to love and to give, which are themselves the
greatest joys of the human spirit.

That’s something even I would dance over!

with blessings for a truly joyous Simchat Torah,

Rabbi Neal

PS- Just a reminder for the locals: Simchat Torah is at TBE this
year, 6pm, Thursday night. Wear your dancing shoes !

PPS- feel free to forward this message to whomever you’d like,
we’re over 160 subscribers, and anybody can join.

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V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah 5762

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5762 and can be found in its archives.

Simchat Torah/ V’zot Habracha (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)

OVERVIEW

Moshe addresses the Israelites one last time, recounting the giving of the Torah and blessing them tribe by tribe. The Israelites are standing on a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley from the east, but Moshe will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He dies, and is buried; the story of the Torah is now finished, and the story of the judges and prophets begins.

IN FOCUS

“And this is blessing by which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death. ” (Deuteronomy 33:1)

PSHAT

The penultimate chapter of the Torah contains a very condensed history of the Israelites since Sinai, and a specific blessing for each of the 12 tribes.

DRASH

As my term of service as your darshan [explainer of the text] comes to a close, I want to return to where we started two years ago- with the subtle observations of the greatest darshan of them all, Rashi. I’ve tried to show over the past few years how close readings of the Torah text enable us to find layers of meaning that a quick glance cannot reveal- and nobody does this better than our friend from medieval France. Rashi notices every word: in the verse above, he seems to be picking up on apparently unnecessary phrase, “before his death.” (After all, could Moshe have blessed the people after his death?) Thus, Rashi’s explanation, based on earlier sources:

    “before his death” – “before” [Hebrew lifney] means close to his death, for if not now, when?

In his usual terse manner, Rashi hints at the urgency of Moshe’s blessing, imagining that Moshe felt that his death was imminent and this was his last chance to impart any final words of wisdom to the people he had shepherded for forty years. Moshe could no put off no longer any words which he longed to speak, for this opportunity was fleeting.

Now, if we stopped right here with Rashi’s midrash, we’d have a powerful reminder that words between intimates cannot be postponed indefinitely, for no one knows the day of his or her death. If you want to bless your loved ones, or say anything else of significance, do so now, for you might not have the warning that Moshe received that his days were soon ending. This is solid wisdom, often repeated, and still true for the repeating.

Yet Rashi hints at something else, as well. The phrase “If not now, when?” was almost certainly known to him as part of a larger statement in the name of Rabbi Hillel, from the section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avot ["Sayings of the Ancestors"]:

    If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Now Rashi’s midrash takes on a different meaning, for it hints that Moshe’s blessing of the tribes was prompted by a whole philosophy of life, not just the urgency of imminent death. Moshe could have said nice things to everybody and died basking in the adoration of the people- but “what am I” if I don’t speak the truth, even if it’s not pleasant? After all, his blessing for the tribe of Reuven- that they “live and not die” – is rather lukewarm, probably recalling earlier prophecies concerning their forefather Reuven in Genesis 49.

On the other hand, Moshe is quite willing to mention his own role in the people’s history, claiming in verse 3 that the Torah was “commanded by Moshe,” although it came from God. Again, think of our saying from Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Even though he was called a very humble man, he had every right to remind the people of what he actually did. Perhaps this gave his blessings more legitimacy and his words greater power.

By linking Moshe’s blessing to Hillel’s mini-philosophy of self-examination, Rashi seems to be offering an interpretation of the entire chapter, not only of this one verse. According to this reading, Moshe spoke out of a sense of urgency, a sense of truthfulness, and a legitimate desire for recognition of his real contributions. Thus, Moshe’s final blessing also becomes his final moment of teaching us by the example of his life, a life dedicated to ideals, actions, and truth. That’s what makes him Moshe Rabbenu ["Moshe our teacher"], not just Moshe the leader.

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V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Simchat Torah/ V’zot Habracha (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)

OVERVIEW

Moshe addresses the Israelites one last time, blessing them tribe by tribe. The Israelites are standing on a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley from the east, but Moshe will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He dies, and is buried; the story of the Torah is now finished, and the story of the judges and prophets begins.

IN FOCUS

“And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. God buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is”. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

PSHAT

Moshe was punished for his sin of striking the rock, way back in Numbers 20. He somehow disobeyed God’s instructions, and as a result was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the people. He is buried on the other side of the valley- in what we now called Jordan- in a deliberately obscure grave.

DRASH

The fact that the Torah ends with Moshe’s death presents a big problem for many commentators, because there is a line of thinking in some traditional Jewish theologies that says the Torah was dictated word for word to Moshe on Mount Sinai. If so, how could the Torah say that Moshe died? Who then wrote the last few lines of the Torah?

The Talmud records an argument about this problem from the very earliest days of post-biblical Judaism:

    The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as [It is written], “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there.”

    Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point [onwards], Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word ?!?. . . .

    No; what we must say is that up to this point [where Moses dies] the Holy One, Blessed be God, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears, as it says of another occasion, “Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” (Jeremiah 36:18)

    (Taken from Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, Soncino translation, some interpolations mine.)

For the moment, let’s leave to one side any modern-era questions about the Torah’s origins and authorship, and just try to understand these arguments on their own terms. The “Master” of the first argument- identified as R. Judah- has a straightforward and sensible solution to the problem: Moshe wrote the whole Torah up until the verse “and Moshe died”, at which point Moshe’s successor, Joshua, takes over.

R. Simeon [Shimon, in Hebrew] can’t accept this viewpoint; he believes that God dictated the entire Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai. According to this view, when God got to the verses pertaining to Moshe’s death outside the Land, Moshe wrote even those, weeping as he recorded his future fate. Perhaps R. Shimon attributes every single word of the Torah to Moshe in order to defend the Torah’s status as a unique sacred text, or in order to link later rabbinic teachings to the earlier revelation. Whatever his motivations, R. Shimon brings a prooftext to defend his position, where he points out that other scribes took “dictation” of holy texts in their entirety (in this case, the prophecies of Jeremiah.)

R. Shimon’s midrash presents an emotionally moving image, compelling us to imagine that Moshe was the ultimate selfless soul, giving his life to lead the people even with full knowledge of disappointments in the future. Yet at least one commentator makes an even more dramatic midrash on the midrash. R. Shlomo ben Aderet, an early medieval commentator from Spain (also known as the Rashba), takes R. Shimon’s interpretation even further, by understanding the words “and Moses wrote with tears” in the most literal sense. The Rashba says that Moshe used his own tears as the ink with which he wrote the last few verses of the Torah.*

Adding the Rashba’s twist to R. Shimon’s midrash takes us in a whole new direction, making Moshe into the exemplar of not only communal service, but of the creation of Torah itself. To me, the image of a person writing words of Torah with their very own tears suggests that Torah may be learned “by dictation,” but in order to really make it complete- to add the final few verses, as it were- we have to invest ourselves in it, bringing to our religious lives our emotions, our spirits, our most intimate experiences.

Not only that, but the Rashba’s image also suggests that in sorrow is opportunity. “Turning one’s tears into Torah” is a powerful reminder that we can learn from our troubles, even make the inevitable pains of life into something holy, something transformative. Moshe may have been the original teacher of Torah, but his life experience is something with which we can call identify- we too know, in advance, that life will bring joys and sorrows, triumphs and some unavoidable disappointments. Unlike Moshe in these midrashim, we don’t know when those times will be- but we do have the same choices: to serve others as selflessly as possible, to invest ourselves fully in spiritual pursuits, and to learn Torah from each experience.

*Quoted in Ha’gaot B’Parshiyot HaTorah, by Yehuda Nachshoni.

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