A marvelous way to begin: Finding true joy in Simhat Torah

The first reading is the underpinning of the notion of creatio ex nihilo, God creating the world out of nothing.

RABBI MICHAEL M. COHEN teaching his ‘Bible as a Key to Environmental Thought’ class at the Arava Institute. (photo credit: REBEKAH SANCHEZ CRUZ)
RABBI MICHAEL M. COHEN teaching his ‘Bible as a Key to Environmental Thought’ class at the Arava Institute.
(photo credit: REBEKAH SANCHEZ CRUZ)
Moses did not celebrate Simhat Torah, nor did King David or King Solomon. In the Mishna, we do read references about Shabbat, weekday and festival readings of the Torah, but no mention of Simhat Torah. The completion of the annual reading of the Torah, around Sukkot, after the beginning of the Jewish year, and not at the end of the Jewish year during Elul, carries with it an echo when Moses instructed the Torah to be read on Sukkot during the Sabbatical year, and when Ezra also read the Torah during Sukkot. At some point the Torah evolved to be completed right after Sukkot on Shmini Atzeret, which we learn from the Babylonian Talmud, Megila 31a.
Rabbi Shlomo Brody points out, “by completing the cycle after Sukkot, as opposed to before Rosh Hashana, these communities were able to place Deuteronomy’s major speeches of admonition before major holidays.
Additionally, the concluding blessing of Moses to the people was read on Shmini Atzeret, embellishing its joy and providing a fitting conclusion to the Tishrei holiday season.”
The holiday of Simhat Torah is not mentioned until around the year 1000; in Israel it is celebrated on the same day as Shmini Atzeret, and in most of the Diaspora observed the day after Shmini Atzeret. Connecting on Simhat Torah the reading of the end of the Torah with the beginning of Torah, did not take place until the 12th century. This historical development of Judaism is one of the key reasons why the Jewish people exist after thousands of years – why Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan refers to Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.”
Related, Harvard professor Diane Moore in her “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures course” teaches that “the historical, social and political place from which a knowledge claim is made shapes that perspective. And this is true for all knowledge claims, but religious interpretation is often particularly susceptible to being seen as a historical and absolute rather than situated and contextualized.”
We are reminded of that profound point by the very first sentence of the Torah, which cannot be approached and understood with absolute assurance of what it means. Its Hebrew words present a number of grammatical challenges that allow for more than one understanding to emerge. One reading is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” while the other is “When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” On face value they may not seem all that different, when in fact they express vastly different comprehensions of the nature of God and the place of humans in the world.
The first reading is the underpinning of the notion of creatio ex nihilo, God creating the world out of nothing. Such an understanding is held by Maimonides, Nahmanides, Sa’adia Gaon, Sforno, Yehuda Halevi and Kabbala; while the second reading states we come in on the process of God creating from material that already exists. Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Gersonides hold that view.
These different ways of understanding how the world came into being posit on one side that God is the only eternal reality of the Universe and the other worldview that sees matter as also eternal. To put it another way, creation from preexistent matter elevates matter closer to God, and by extension raises the position of nature and people in the world with possible theological and philosophical implications.
The Torah is where we meet God; the meeting of the finite with Holy Infinite Presence. The distance between the finite and the infinite is filled with mystery, and so our attempts to understand God are imprinted with our human limitations. We are joyful on Simhat Torah, celebrating the Torah as our guide; a guide that begins with its first sentence shrouded in mystery. The question is asked why the Torah begins with the letter bet and not alef. One possible answer is that bet, with its numerical value of two, reminds us that text often will have more than one interpretation, recognizing because of those linguistic irregularities that the opening sentence poses extra challenges to our ability to understand the text.
What a marvelous way for the Torah to begin. A humble reminder to all of us that we may be fallible in our attempt to understand God and our relationship to God. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook makes the connection between humility and joy in his work The Moral Principles. “Genuine humility,” he writes, “inspires joy.” The joy of Simhat Torah.
• Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation of Manchester Center, Vermont, teaches at Bennington College and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.