02 Oct 2015

Simhat Torah 5776: Bookends

Simhat Torah 5776: Bookends

“The religion that is afraid of science
dishonours G-d….”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson
At the close of the Succot festival we also come to the close of our annual cycle of our public Torah reading. Customarily just after completing veZot haBerakha, the last parasha, we immediately begin Bereshit, the first parasha. The usual reason given for this custom is in order to show that we never actually complete our study of Torah and that we begin again with each cycle yielding new insights, discoveries and lessons. But there is something more that can be gained from this practice[1].

To look at the Torah’s beginning immediately after its end presents an important perspective. By the end of veZot haBerakha, six hundred and thirteen commandments have been given and frameworks for every aspect of life have been outlined. By the cycle’s culmination we are immersed in religious, moral and ethical issues and we tend not to maintain a connection between those issues and creation and the natural world. Reading about the prohibitions against charging interest and delaying payment to workers does not necessarily mesh in our minds with the creation of stars and planets. By the end of the book we tend to forget how we began. The reading on Simhat Torah is an opportunity to see Torah not simply as a book of diverse commandments but as a unified framework for life that sees the earliest origins of our universe and our complex developments as human beings as part of an entire system.

In its subtle way the reading of Simhat Torah highlights an important question: Do the scholars and adherents of the G-d’s law also genuinely see it embedded in G-d’s world? Indeed, can we properly study the laws and ideas of Torah without paying close attention to nature? Can we come to know Moshe without knowing humanity?

Torah is not meant to be the source of our science but our science is meant to be understood in tandem with Torah[2]; neither should hold the other back from growth and development. The wider the gap becomes between our Torah study and our study of science and the world the wider the gap will become that holds Torah’s end to its beginning. The Torah will lose cohesiveness and it will become increasingly challenging to see a genuine connection between our humanity and our religious commitment and wisdom. G-d will either be found in Torah or in the world but not in both, a tragedy that directly undermines our recognition of G-d’s unity. As this occurs, Simhat Torah, the joy that we find in Torah, will wane leaving us feeling hopelessly torn between our religion and our humanity.

With each cycle of our Torah reading we are meant to gain greater and more meaningful insights into Torah. We are meant to reexamine the understandings of our youth with our mature and developed minds. We are meant to do the same with our understanding of nature. There are priceless lessons embedded in many of our precious customs. The custom to run Torah’s end into its beginning and to move from mitsvah to Ma’aseh Bereshit reminds us that the dat Moshe, the ‘religion of Moses’, must always find its connection back to the human condition and the universe in which it exists.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Rabbi Hayim Palachi, Chief Rabbi of Izmir, Turkey (1857-1869) wrote a treatise called Hayim Tehila offering many possible commentaries on the juxtaposition of Torah’s end to its beginning.

[2] See Moreh Nebukhim, I:34