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

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

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
Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: