Friday, October 16, 2009

A Thought on Beginning the Torah Cycle Anew

This Shabbat we move from Simchat Torah, where we rejoiced in the completion of another cycle of reading the Torah, to starting the Torah again with the reading of Parashat Bereshit. At this moment, it is worth reflecting on the significance of Simchat Torah and of starting the new year with a new cycle of Torah reading.

Simchat Torah is the second day of Shmini Atzeret and, indeed, in Israel they are celebrated on the same day. In some Sefardic and Chassidic communities the themes are also somewhat merged, as such shuls do hakafot on the night of Shmini Atzeret as well. Now, Shmini Atzeret is certainly a day that is in need of definition. The Torah makes it clearly distinct from Sukkot - there is no lulav or Sukkah - but does not tell us anything about its historical or theological significance. All we are told is "On the eighth day, you shall have an 'atzeret." What does this atzeret, gathering, mean? The Targum Yonatan translates this as "an ingathering from the Sukkah into the house." According to him, the nature of Shmini Atzeret is the leaving of the sukkah and the entering into the house. This is supported by the Mishna is sukkah that states that one must start moving from the sukkah into the house on Hoshana Rabbah, just before the night of Shmini Atzeret. But why should we have a yom tov dedicated to moving out of the sukkah?

Shmini Atzeret is, according to this, a yom tov of transition. We need to take out time and focus on our moving from one experience to another. We cannot just leave one meaningful experience and then put ourselves in another context. We must pause and be thoughtful about the critical moment of transition.

The end of Sukkot is the end of a profound period. It is a period that begins in Elul and intensifies throughout Tishrei. By the end of Sukkot we have gone through weks of self-reflection, prayer, of teshuva and of drawing closer to God. We have lived in the sukkah and been reminded of God's protection of us in the Wilderness, when that protection was palpable because we only had a flimsy hut to protect us. And we realize that even in our firm and stable homes we only succeed in this world only because of God's help and God's protection.
And then it is time to move back into our homes. Will we take any of these messages with us, or will soon get used to our comfort and our routine, and lose our sensitivity to God's presence? How will we ensure that the experiences of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot do not get quickly forgotten when the realities of day-to-day living take over? To ask ourselves this question - which is the first step in answering it - we need to focus on the moment of transition. We need the yom tov of Shmini Atzeret to make us realize that we are in a critical moment and we must at this moment think seriously about how we can bring the lessons of the sukkah back with us into the house.

But if we have asked this question, what is the answer? How will we be successful in this transition? The answer is the transition of Shmini Atzeret into Simchat Torah. What will keep us sensitive to God's presence as we enter the new year. The learning of Torah. And not just the learning of Torah, the joy of the Torah, the joy of connecting to the word of God through the learning of God's Torah. It is astounding when one realizes how many psukim in Tanakh describe the joy of learning Torah. "How I love Your Torah, all the day it is my delight." Observance of halakha is the bedrock of our commitment, but if that is all that we have, we can lose a connection to the sense of God's presence, to the meaning of it all. It is through the learning of Torah, and connecting to the joy of such learning, that we can not only deepen our understanding of Torah and our commitment to our religious life, but that we can cultivate, sustain, and heighten our experienced connection to the Ribbono Shel Olam. It is through the simcha of the Torah that we can bring the lessons of the Yamim Noraim and Sukkot into the rest of the year.

As we begin again the reading of the Torah with Parashat Bereshit, let us all commit anew to increasing our own learning of Torah for this coming year. And let us devote ourselves to a learning of Torah that resonates with us, one that connects us to the simchat Torah, so that we can continue to feel God's presence in our lives throughout the year.

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