Simhat Torah: Which Way When the Circle Ends
The annual celebration of Simhat Torah brings great joy to so many of us of all generations, and it is a fitting and triumphant conclusion to the long and multifaceted season of intense Jewish observance and focus that began (a little before Rosh Hashanah) with Selichot. In Israel and in congregations observing a single day of festivals, Simhat Torah is blended with Shemini Atzeret, offering the intense experience in the morning of Hallel, Hakkafot (processions with dancing) and Geshem (the prayer for Rain).
At the morning service of Simhat Torah there are four linked biblical readings (three from the Torah), and the relationship among them invites us to think about the flow of sacred text in a multidimensional context. The first reading is Vezot HaBrakha, the last chapters of Deuteronomy containing the final blessings from Moses to the community—and the account of the death of Moses, alone with God on Mount Nebo. To receive the final aliyah after everyone else present has been called to the Torah is considered a great honor, and the person with this honor is called up with a special formula (a short version is presented in Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, 215) that affirms, “May it be the will of the One Most Powerful to grant abundant blessings to [insert the name of the one called] who has been chosen to complete the Torah.”
After we have heard the final verses of Deuteronomy, and chanted with joy the traditional formula of “Hazak hazak venitchazek!” (Be strong, be strong, we strengthen each other!), we find ourselves at a junction with three pathways forward.
1. The eternal circle of the Torah is affirmed by immediately reading the story of Creation from the beginning of Genesis. This is, perhaps, the deepest message of Simhat Torah—the Torah has no beginning and no end, and if we might discern the hint of beginning and end, these two extremes are juxtaposed—albeit from a different scroll—with a different person uniquely honored (Sim Shalom, 216).
2. The ritual continuity with the ancient Avodah service of sacrifices I affirmed through the maftir from Numbers that specifies the offerings of Shemini Atzeret (for Simhat Torah has no place in the biblical calendar—it is “grafted” onto Shemini Atzeret).
3. A hint of history preserved in the selection of the Haftarah from the beginning of Joshua, offering an element of deference to narrative continuity flowing forward from the end of Deuteronomy.
In the physical world, when we reach a fork in the road, we must make a choice. The world of symbols and ritual allows us to make all three choices, finding many ways forward from a single moment.
May we dance with the Torah—real and metaphorical—with each of these choices, and our recollections of the month of Tishrei as a season of joy and awe.
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.