Torahby David Ebenbach August 27, 2013
By David Ebenbach
This September we return.
On Simchat Torah, we read parashat V’zot Ha-Brakhah, the final words from the Book of Deuteronomy, and we find the Israelites on the verge of entering the promised land. Indeed, in the next book of the Tanakh, Joshua, the Israelites do enter the land and make it their own. But we don’t follow them—not in our cyclical Torah readings. Because of course we don’t read the book of Joshua after we finish Deuteronomy. No—on that same night of Simchat Torah many of us will unscroll the Torah in our synagogues, running it in a circle around our sacred space, and, instead of Joshua, we will read—again—the very first words of the Torah. In our readings we never cross over into the promised land; we only return to where we started.
We feel this echoed in the High Holidays, which we observe annually because, despite our great efforts to improve ourselves at this time last year, despite any and all of our strides in that respect, we have, in fact, fallen short. We have not quite managed to cross the border into who we wish to be. Even the word teshuvah, our annual task on these High Holidays, is rooted in the Hebrew for “turn.” We, like our Torah, circle back to do it again.
The truth is that we encounter these circles everywhere in our lives. Our relationships go through cycles; our work repeats itself. As a writer, every time I sit down to start a new book, a new story, a new poem or article, it’s like I’m figuring it out all over again. We don’t rest on our past—not even past successes—but return to square one to do more.
This pattern could dismay us—and certainly Yom Kippur embodies the solemnity that surrounds our recurring spiritual and personal task. Yet, once we’ve recommitted ourselves to that work, we reach Simchat Torah, the night when, in the Torah, we begin again—and also the most joyous holiday of the year. On this night we don’t mourn what we haven’t done; we celebrate what we’re doing.
So how do we, caught in this loop, get to that place of celebration? With humility. Our model for this journey ought to be Moses, who himself never makes it into the promised land, not even in Joshua. This is the Moses who is (among humans) at the center of every book of the Torah except Genesis, and of whom the text says, Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses (Gn 34:10). In other words, this man, the emblematic case of a person who stops short of the goal, is nonetheless perhaps the best of us. Why? Well, according to the Torah, Moses was a humble man, more so than any man on earth (Num 12:3). His greatness comes not from the final destination he reaches (or doesn’t), but from his character on the journey.
Humility means trying very hard to progress while accepting that we will not fully succeed, knowing that we will have to go back to the drawing board in order to do great things. At this time of year above all, we must take on this ongoing task of self-improvement not with resentment or despair, but as steadfastly and humbly as Moses would. If we do, maybe the circle will start to spiral forward—and we’ll reach Simchat Torah with reason to dance.
Sept. 7: Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)
Sept. 14: Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16)
Sept. 21: Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot (Exodus 33:12-34:26)
Sept. 28: B’reisheet (Genesis 1:1-6:8)