FINISHING TO START OVER – a Simhat Torah message, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Winding up the holiday month with a bang, we relish the trappings of Simhat Torah. Singing and dancing with all the Torah scrolls, the endless processions around the synagogue, the equally endless honors to bless the Torah, and in many congregations the customary L’chaim – that little shot of Bourbon that follows each Aliya — all add up to a grand finale for this festive month.
Then of course comes the Torah reading itself. Every Jew in attendance gets an Aliya, an honor to bless the Torah. Larger congregations frequently conduct parallel Torah readings in different rooms to accommodate all the eligible honorees. At the end of all the Aliyot the “Chatan torah” and the “Chatan B’reysheet” (literally the bridegrooms of the Torah and of the Book of Genesis) get the two honors unique to this occasion. One blesses the section that finishes the annual Torah reading, the last chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy ending with the words “in the sight of all Israel,” and hears the congregational chant “Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek” – “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other!” Then the other “bridegroom” blesses the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning,” which is read from another scroll (no way do we keep a congregation waiting while we roll one scroll all the way back to the beginning!) We finish and within the hour we start over. A unique practice, isn’t it? Do we ever do this in any other area?
Not in agriculture. Harvest in the fall, plant in the spring.
Not in manufacturing. No waiting till the first car rolls off the assembly line to start building the second one. The process is continuous.
Not in education either. Immediately starting a class over? Only if you failed to learn it the first time.
So why do we finish reading the entire Torah, a year-long schedule, and begin it again without a pause? Will we find something new in it this year that we missed last year? Something a thousand generations of ancestors, scholars, commentators never found? After all, not a word in this scroll changed during all those centuries. Every Sofer – scribe – who copies one of these Sifrey Torah must make sure that the paragraphing, the spacing, the spelling, in fact every detail remains identical. Therefore we will be reading the exact same words this year as we read last year. The words don’t change.
But we do. We will read those same words with new eyes. Eyes that saw different things, different people, read some different writings. How will we interpret the Torah’s words this year? Maybe we can still find something new there, just as our great commentators could differ with each other in their interpretations, and often learn a new truth from those old words?
We can. Because there is one parallel that fits Simhat Torah perfectly. One other activity we finish and start over right away, all the time. That activity is breathing. Exhale, then inhale immediately. Not once a year, but every few seconds, that activity keeps us alive. Our bodies live on air, so we always need to restart that breathing process.
Just as our bodies live on air, our Jewish spirits live on Torah. We need to restart that too. Take a new look at the Creation story, now that you know the Big Bang theory. Savor the Exodus from Egypt, as Martin Luther King’s followers did when they called him their Moses. Share the excitement of a unified people gathered at Mount Sinai – those present to receive the Torah, and those not present, namely us. We have great experiences to look forward to as we start reading our Torah again. And if you missed any of those experiences last year, here’s your chance to catch up.
Enjoy starting over this Simhat Torah. Rekindle your Jewish life!