Progressively Speaking: We never look back at Simchat Torah, only forwards
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Progressively Speaking: We never look back at Simchat Torah, only forwards

Rabbi Dr René Pfertzel takes a topic from Jewish texts and offers a Liberal Jewish response

Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)
Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)

The festival of Simchat Torah emerged in the Middle Ages, somewhere between the 9th and the 12th century CE. It is attached to the end of Succot, Shemini Atzeret. Progressive Jews throughout the world follow the custom of Eretz Israel and mark both festivals on the same day. 

There is indeed something exhilarating in celebrating a new beginning. We completed a whole cycle of Torah and we are immediately embarking on a new one, reading the last verses of Deuteronomy and the first of Genesis, almost in one breath. 

The last letter of Torah is lamed (Israel), and the first is bet (Bereshit). Together, lamed and bet make up the word lev, heart. Torah is at the heart of Israel, and Israel commits to Torah with all its heart. 

The end of the book of Deuteronomy, a Torah portion called V’zot HaBerachah, is read only on Simchat Torah. 

The Torah ends with these words: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Eternal singled out, face to face, for the various signs and wonders the Eternal performed in Egypt, and for the great and awesome power Moses displayed before all Israel.”

The death of a hero begs the question: How did we get to this point, when the last word of our most sacred text is Israel, our people, and what is the purpose of this sacred history? It is also an invitation to revisit the origins. 

Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz has the first of many riddles of Torah: How can we translate Bereshit? The traditional translation says, “in the beginning” but it is not what the vocalised Hebrew says. The Masoretic text says very clearly, “in a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. There is no indication of what happened before.

We start our foundational texts with God’s creative power: God has created a universe that holds the capacity to renew and reproduce itself, that will host human beings endowed with free will. It is as if Torah wanted to tell us: Do not look backwards, but only forwards. 

In the beginning the future is created, not with certainty, but with a question: Where do we come from and where do we want to go?

Each beginning of the cycle invites us to ask these questions and to offer answers, new and yet eternal.  

  • Rabbi Dr René Pfertzel is co-chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors
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