The people & the book: Sadness and joy on Simhat Torah

In every unfulfilled yearning there is the renewed challenge of striving to move forward into the future.

Cartoon (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
“Outspread hands, gaze from afarThere no one comesEach and his Nevo Over a vast land
These lines, the last stanza of her poem “From Afar,” are etched into the gravestone of the famed Hebrew poetess Rachel. They use the place of Moses’ death and burial on the other side of the Jordan as “a symbol of unfulfilled yearning,” in the words of Hebrew literature specialist Prof. Naomi Brenner.
Already in the opening stanza of the poem, Rachel has transformed the geographical name into a metaphor: In every hope / There is the sadness of Nevo...
On Simhat Torah (the Joy of the Torah), Jews around the world celebrate the completion and the renewal of the annual Torahreading cycle in song and dance. They do so according to an ancient Babylonian Jewish tradition reinvigorated in recent centuries by the emphatic Hasidic teaching of joy as a primary religious value, a joy often rediscovered by previously alienated Jews Lost to many in the day’s almost frivolous festivities are the verses read as the Book of Deuteronomy ends: Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo...This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...I have let you see it with your own eyes, But you shall not cross there.So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, In the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord He buried him in the valley of Moab...And the Israelites bewailed Moses In the Steppes of Moab for thirty days...
The Torah closes with Moses’ last words, his tragic punishment and death, and the mourning of the people of Israel of their great loss.
After the somber, serious Days of Awe and the fragile but joyful spiritual fineness of Sukkot, we reach Simhat Torah. Here we have a last joyous crescendo of the Tishrei festivals – a burst of song and dance encompassing all. Congregants and guests actively participate as one after another they are called up to the Holy Book. Lost to many during this joyful day is the sadness and unfulfilled yearning that is Nevo. For Rachel, Nevo was her beloved Kinneret to which she dreamed of returning (a theme of many of her poems), sadly only doing so after her death. Countless other Jews never lived to fulfill their dream of reaching the Promised Land at all. The tragedy of Moses’ death described in the verses of this celebratory Torah reading is, nevertheless, there in the midst of all the celebration for those who actively listen to the text they are reading.
As a congregational rabbi in Israel, in my work in spiritual counseling with ill and dying people, and their bereaved families, I have often come across a reversed mirror of this paradox of the Simhat Torah liturgical experience. At the end of life, despite the pain and suffering, at the edge of despair, in the midst of mourning, there are also moments of quiet, restrained but very present joy – a paradox as surprising as the Simhat Torah juxtaposition described above.
I have witnessed and sometimes even nurtured forgiveness, renewal of personal relationships, celebration of cherished memories and meaningful connections not seen before. This happens as individuals and families process their “letting go” of loved ones and prepare to “move on” from death back into life. This is, incidentally, one of the predominant themes of Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s great book “The Star Of Redemption.”
In a sense this is what Simhat Torah, and in fact all of the Tishrei cycle, is about. It is also about “letting go” of the past, while renewing individual, communal and transcendent relationships in order to “move on.” Getting up from tragedy, loss, after mourning, we go back to Bereishit (the Beginning) to start again, hopefully wiser and deepened by our experience, but nevertheless to start over again.
Rachel’s poetic words might also be reversed to add another level of understanding to our spiritual journey. In every sadness (of Nevo), there is also the hope (of the Promised Land). In every unfulfilled yearning there is the renewed challenge of striving to move forward into the future despite disappointment.
I pray that those seeking peace and justice here in the Land will succeed in overcoming the sadness of our past mistakes and unfulfilled yearnings to move forward into hope. Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi living in Jerusalem, who works for Rabbis for Human Rights and is the author of the recently published novel, “Far Away from Where”.