Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, October 13, 2014

Walk Article-Simchat Torah


Simchat Torah-5775

Rabbi David Walk


            Every Simchat Torah we dance exuberantly with our Torah scrolls.  I, too, am exuberant it's just questionable if what I'm doing can be classified as dancing.  During the Sukkot festival we take our lulavi, and march around a Torah scroll.  We pay homage to God and the Torah for our harvest bounty.  On Simchat Torah the Torah scrolls circle the perimeter of our sanctuary marching around us, as if to acknowledge our devotion to God and the Torah for loyally completing the Torah every year.  It's a wonderful celebration.  The Sfat Emet (second rebbe of Gur, 1847-1905) asks which moment of Simchat Torah is the apex of our joy.  Now, I foolishly would have said the elation is over completing the annual task.  Thank God I wasn't sitting in his class.  He wisely opined that the greatest delight is beginning the journey again.  We're God's children wanting to hear the story again and again, because there is new elation and insight in every retelling.  So, again we are at that cusp between an ending and new beginnings.   

            The ancient world was fascinated by the ouroboros or the snake which eats its own tail.  This symbol of eternal renewal is reminiscent of our never ending cycle of Torah readings.  Certain mystic authorities have hinted at this idea by suggesting that when we end our Torah with the word Yisrael we have the last letter lamed which connects to the first letter of breishit, the beit.  This spells the Hebrew word lev, which means heart, because our heart is in our Torah study.  Therefore, I think it is worthwhile to ask if we can find a lesson in analyzing our Torah's first idea with its last.

            The first verse in our Torah is:  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  The last verses are:  And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).  Our Torah begins with the primacy of God in heaven and earth and ends with the importance of Moshe and his prophesy to our world.  Fitting ideas to begin and end the world's greatest literary work.

            But that's not how we Jews learn Torah.  We have a guide to our tour of Divine thought, namely Reb Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), whom we call Rashi.  Rashi rarely makes original observations.  His work is almost entirely made up of quotes, but he really knew how to choose the best comment for every text.  So, it's extremely informative to check his choices for these texts.  The first Rashi in Chumash is very famous, and here it is:  Said Rabbi Isaac: The Torah should have begun from "This month is to you," (Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments. Now for what reason did He commence with "In the beginning?" Because it states in the verse "The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, "You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan," they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us."  Wow, replace Canaanites with Palestinians and Rashi has quoted daily newspaper articles in Europe and a certain rag in NYC.  Rashi justified our eternal claims to our homeland in a hostile world dominated by Crusaders who claimed the Holy Land as theirs, and went on Jihad to make it so.

            And how does Rashi wrap up the greatest story ever told?  He quotes the final phrase 'before the eyes of all Israel,' and comments: This expression alludes to the incident where Moshe's heart stirred him to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, "and I shattered them before your eyes" (Deuteronomy 9:17, Sifrei 33:41). And regarding this act, the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, "the first Tablets which you shattered" (Exodus 34:1); God said to Moses: "Well done for shattering them!" [TB Tractate Shabbat 87a].  Rashi combines the observation of the Midrash with the conclusion of the Talmud.  The critically important event to which the nation was eye witness was not the ten plagues nor the crossing of the Sea, not even the epiphany at Sinai, but rather it was Moshe's seemingly reckless act of destruction.  Why?  What do we learn from this?  The Siftei Chachamim (R. Shabtai Bass, 1641-1718), the greatest commentary on Rashi, says that we learn the greatness of Moshe, and he adds that we know the Talmud's praise for Moshe's act must be correct because God instructed that the broken tablet also be placed in the Holy Ark.

            Perhaps Rashi's goal was to demonstrate the relevance of Torah and its infinite levels of meanings to his tempest-tossed generation.  His initial comment was about our never wavering belief in our covenant with God and the blessings that relationship implies.  His final comment instructs the nation to show trust and loyalty to our leaders even in difficult times and circumstances.  This has been powerful medicine for a beleaguered people.  I doubt that it was this master teacher's goal, but it also shows the continued relevance of Rashi's commentary.

            I concede to the Sfat Emet that the greatest joy is the renewal of the weekly Torah readings cycle, but that joy is further enhanced by discovering new messages every year.  The enterprise remains fresh and relevant.  Chag Sameach!