Simhat Torah/Shmini Atzeret/Bereishit: Celebrating creation

‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob’(Deuteronomy 33:4).

torah 311 (photo credit: Israel Weiss
torah 311
(photo credit: Israel Weiss
Our nation is just concluding an intensive festival period which encompasses a rollercoaster of emotions. We have moved from the intense soul-searching of Rosh Hashana to the heartfelt prayers for forgiveness of Yom Kippur.
We have built and will dwell for seven days in makeshift houses reminiscent of the booths in the desert as well as of the “fallen succa of King David,” the Holy Temple. We will punctuate our prayer for rain with joyous and sometimes even raucous dancing around the Torah, whose reading we conclude just at Festival’s end. After a full month of festivities, we will enter our first post-festival Shabbat, on which we shall read of the creation of the world.
I believe there is a conceptual scheme that connects all these seemingly disparate elements. I also believe many observant Jews miss the theological thread that magnificently unites this particular holiday period because the religious establishment does not sufficiently stress the real message that Judaism is trying to teach.
Despite the hundreds of years between them, two great theologians – Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), in his Sefer Ha’ikarim (Book of Essential Jewish Beliefs) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) in his Star of Redemption – insist that the fundamental principles of Jewish faith are outlined in the three special blessings of the Rosh Hashana musaf amida prayer.
Conventional wisdom sees the High Holy Days as frightening days of judgment, but Rosh Hashana actually teaches us that a major function of the Jewish people in this world is to establish the Kingship of our God of love, morality and peace throughout the world. Indeed, the hassidim – and especially Chabad – refer to the night of Rosh Hashana as the night of the Coronation.
Yom Kippur is our Day of Forgiveness. In order for us to dedicate ourselves to the task of bringing the God of compassionate righteousness and justice to the world in the coming year, each of us must take to the task with renewed vigor. We can only muster the necessary energy if we have successfully dealt with our feelings of inadequacy resulting from improper conduct toward humanity and to God.
Yom Kippur is not only a day of forgiveness for Jews.
Our reading of the Book of Jonah with God’s command that the prophet bring the gentile Assyrians to repentance and the refrain which we iterate and reiterate during our fast, “for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7) demonstrate that God desires repentance and forgiveness for all of humanity.
The musaf amida on Yom Kippur describes in exquisite detail every moment of the Temple service for forgiveness; indeed it transports us to the Holy Temple itself.
Our succa represents the Holy Temple, or at least the model of the sanctuary in the desert after which it was crafted. The guests of the succa (ushpizin) are the great personalities of biblical history, and the most fitting decorations for the succa are scenes from the Temple service (so magnificently reproduced by Mahzor Hamikdash). It is not accidental that the depiction of the Temple service of the musaf amida in the Yom Kippur service begins by invoking the creation of the world. The Temple should somehow serve as a magnet for all nations and the conduit through which they will accept the kingship of God and a lifestyle reflecting His morality and love.
Note the following amazing parallelism; when the Bible describes the building of a sanctuary, it uses the following words: “Behold I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri the son of Hur from the tribe of Judah and I have filled him with the spirit of God: with Wisdom (hochma), with Understanding (tevuna) and with Knowledge (da’at)” (Exodus 31:2,3).
In the Book of Proverbs, which invokes God’s creation of the world, a parallel verse is found: “The Lord founded the earth with Wisdom (hochma), fashioned the heavens with Understanding (tevuna) and with Knowledge (da’at) pierced through the great deep and enabled the heavens to give forth dew” (Proverbs 3:19, 20).
Apparently, the Bible is asking us to recreate the world with the Holy Temple from whence our religious teachings must be disseminated throughout humanity.
From this perspective, we understand why our rejoicing over the Torah takes place at the conclusion of this holiday season rather than during the Festival of Shavuot. Passover and Shavuot are national festivals on which we celebrate the founding of our nation from the crucible of Egyptian slavery and our unique status as the chosen people resulting from the revelation at Sinai.
The festivals of the month of Tishrei are universal in import, focusing on our responsibility to be a Light unto the Nations. This is why on Simhat Torah we take the Bible scrolls out into the street, into the public thoroughfare and dance with them before the entire world.
From this perspective we can well understand why Shemini Atzeret-Simhat Torah moves seamlessly into the reading of Bereshit, Genesis, of the creation of the world.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.