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did you get the memo?

10/07/2020 12:43:07 PM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

The holiday of Simchat Torah, which comes at the end of Sukkot, is interesting for many reasons. In Israel, as well as in most Reform congregations and some Conservative congregations in the United States, it is combined with Shemini Atzeret into one day. In Israel, festivals are celebrated for seven days, whereas outside of Israel, festivals are celebrated for eight days, as we bear the ancient challenges of confirming the sighting of the moon and when festivals began millennia ago.

Until sometime between the 9th and 12th Centuries, there were still different Torah reading cycles in existence throughout the world. The format in the ancient land of Israel was a triennial cycle, whereas in other communities, the Babylonian system of reading the full portion was also being observed. Shemini Atzeret was a two-day festival outside of the land of Israel, and the Torah reading on the second day of the festival was the last part of the book of Deuteronomy. With the concluding of the Torah portion, customs throughout Europe developed of removing all the Torah scrolls and dancing with them in celebration of the conclusion. With the dark events of the various expulsions and the Crusades still in worshipper’s minds, this celebration evolved into what we now call Simchat Torah, still technically the second day of Shemini Atzeret.

Independent of the celebratory elements, the fact that a people return to the beginning of their holy scroll year after year is indeed incredible and laudatory. Many rabbinic adages have been written over the ages in an attempt to convince doubters that there is always something new to discover as one begins the text anew. I can attest to that through sheer experiences on a weekly basis. Whether it is reading the commentaries of a particular commentator, or a simple reading of the text, or, as I have been doing regularly since the pandemic, teaching Torah every Shabbat morning, I continue to gain insight and new perspectives that I had never noticed after all these years. The experiences that we have had, our mood at that precise moment, and the news of the day all offer different lenses through which we view the text before us.

Two somewhat synonymous rabbinic adages come to mind that bear mentioning: 1) There are seventy faces(aspects) to the Torah, and 2) Turn it, turn it; everything is contained within it. Both let us know that there is so much more underexplored territory in the Torah that we have not yet experienced. For those who engage in Torah study, this is indeed an impetus to uncover the yet undiscovered. The view of each commentator is colored by the era, education, and life experiences, providing us with an opportunity to see their life through the commentaries as well as learn from each one something unique that we might not have seen.

I find the potential for new understanding an exciting opportunity to start from “The Beginning” once again, bidding a sad farewell to Moses, an incomparable human being whose life dominates four of the five books of the Torah, and welcoming the pre-Abrahamic stories of the origins of humanity. I leave you with one favorite teaching from the Creation story.

God created one set of human beings, Adam and Eve. Judaism teaches us that all of humanity is descended from the same set of parents. We are all family, and while we can argue and disagree as families are wont to do, in the end, the answer to Cain’s question is a firm yes! We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. May this New Year demonstrate that more and more people get that memo.

Wed, February 24 2021 12 Adar 5781