Rabbi David Walk
This Shabbat has a sort of surreal feeling about it. It's sort of tucked in between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and even though in the official version of Jewish tradition Shabbat is the holiest day of the year (that's why Shabbat has more aliyot to the Torah than other occasions), this Shabbat seems to be overwhelmed by the big guys on either side. Even rabbi types have trouble getting our act together for speeches and sermons because we've been working so hard on the High Holiday presentations. And now we have multiple talks to prepare for Sukkot. When is there time to fit in preparation for this Shabbat? I have a feeling that many balabustas feel the exact same way. I mean how many meals can we shop, plan and cook for? Therefore I hope that everyone out there reading this will have compassion on the food and speech preparers this week. You can get back to normal criticism next week. Thank you, that is all, over and out. Just kidding! I do have a Torah idea to share with you.
There is another issue that feels kind of weird this week. We just spent that last week and a half wishing everybody in sight a happy new year. We have been heavily emphasizing the newness of everything around us. However, when we open up the Torah this Shabbat morning, we find ourselves at the very end of the scroll. As a matter of fact, endings are the major topic of the reading. We are immersed in the ending of Moshe Rabbeinu's life, and his closing remarks to the assembled throng, as the rest of Jewish history peers over their shoulders. We are the fly on the proverbial wall observing this touching scene, as Moshe bids fond farewell. Hopefully we will be the generation who actually heeds Moshe's warnings in this very intimidating poem.
But there still is the nagging question: Why couldn't the Sages have coordinated the
Torah readings with the calendar and begun the annual cycle together with the New Year? Before I share my brilliant (?) insight, allow me to give a more traditional answer. The rabbis of old seem to have been focused on Shmini Atzeret (and, of course, in the Diaspora Simchat Torah) as the perfect ending time for the Torah's cycle. Why is this true? Although there are many answers, I really like the answer of Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. The Rav explained that Sukkot is the holiday of Torah shel b'al peh, or the oral Torah. When Moshe came down from Mt. Sinai the second time with the second set of Tablets of the Law on Yom Kippur, he also brought the first teachings of the Oral Tradition, which helps to explain the Torah sh'bichtav or the Written torah. The Rav goes on to elucidate that no other series of laws in the torah require an oral tradition to explain them more than the laws of Sukkot. The Torah barely hints at the requirements of the sukkah construction. While the Torah goes on and on describing how to build the Mishkan, there is almost nothing about the dimensions or details of this hut. Also, the Torah doesn't even name the four species which we must wave during the festival. We need the oral tradition to decipher the coded allusions to these items. So, we sit in our huts and appreciate the importance of the Oral Tradition. Then the sages decided that we should connect these two halves of the Torah by celebrating the Written Law's completion and beginning on the Holiday of the Oral Law.
As excellent as that answer is, I'd still like to present an alternative approach. I believe that the content of this week's reading provides a strong clue as to why those rabbis of old wanted the Torah completed a couple of weeks into the new year. What is the poem of Ha'azinu about? Let's take a look at a few verses: But Jeshurun (Israel) became wealthy and kicked at God. You became fat, thick, sleek, and obstinate! Then they abandoned God who had made him. They provoked God to anger with strange gods…They sacrificed to demons, not to God. You were unmindful of the Rock who bore you, and forgot the God who gave you birth. Then God said, 'I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be, for they have become a perverse generation (Deuteronomy 32:15-20).' It's a poem of warning about future backslidings of the Jewish nation. The catalyst will be wealth, but this can only happen if the Jews forget their history and tradition. To prevent this dystopian future, we have only to remain true to our heritage. How do we do that? Well, we read the beginning of the poem.
Moshe begins this amazing poem by calling upon heaven and earth to bear witness to his crucial message. This powerful preaching begins with the antidote to this fearsome fate. Moshe states, 'Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your parent, and you will be informed, your elders, and they will tell you (verse 7).' We can prevent this dreadful prospect by remembering our past, by recalling the precedent of our forebears. When we become prosperous or successful it's critically important to remain true to the tenets that got us here.
Now we can begin to understand why it is so essential that we begin the year with this reading. It is imperative to remember our past to usher us into a better future. We begin our new year with a plethora of wonderful expectations, but we must remain mindful of how best to attain them.
It's not just that old saw about those who forget the past are doomed to relive it. There is a more potent principle: Remember our heritage to attain the future we have prayed for. Use that past we just spent so much time thinking about on the High Holidays to plan a fabulous future. What could be more important to remember as we enter the new year?