Kafka and Returning to Torah

Vezot Haberakhah | Simhat Torah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 22, 2000 / 5761 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Ve-zot ha-b’rakhah is the one parasha that does not have a Shabbat unto itself. As the final two chapters of the Torah, it constitutes the main reading for Simhat Torah (the joy of Torah) when we both complete the annual Torah cycle and begin it immediately again by reading the first creation story of Genesis. As if to make up for the slight, we repeat the parasha until all who are present in the synagogue have been honored with an aliyah.

The Talmud has singled out one of its verses to be the first specimen of Torah which parents are to teach their young children. After they acquire the capacity to speak, a process which imbues me with awe every time I witness it, we are instructed to introduce them to the Hebrew language by having them learn the following verse: “Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob (Deut. 33:4).” Long before our children start their formal education, we are obliged to give them a sense of place. As Jews, our lives are shaped by Torah. The triad of God, Torah and the people Israel is an inseparable and indestructible unity. The compression of the verse has a creedal force that will take a lifetime to unpack (B.T. Sukkah, 42a).

The ritual statement of this unity is the festival of Simhat Torah. There is to be no interruption in our public reading of Torah, because it is the link that joins God and Israel. Torah is the medium through which Jews experience the reality of God as well as express it. Torah is the form and content, language and substance of our religious being. Its centrality in the synagogue service merely reflects its seminal role as the infinitely expanding curriculum of daily study.

The key to this expansion is both intellectual and psychological. In the oft-repeated affirmation of our faith, the Shema, we are first admonished to love God with all our heart and then advised to meditate on just how we might do that: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day (Deut. 6:5-6).” Rebi, the editor of the Mishnah, interprets the second verse as guiding us on how to fulfill the first. By persistent study of Torah (“take to heart these instructions”), we shall come to understand God more profoundly and wish to cleave to God more intensely. The specificity of Torah helps to concretize our inarticulate love (Sifre, ed. by Finkelstein p. 59).

Yet another rabbinic comment focuses on the present tense of the verb, “which I charge you this day.” That immediacy suggests that, “we are not to regard the Torah as an old statute to which no one pays attention any more, but rather like a new one that everyone is eager to read (Sifre, p. 59).” Each time we take up the Torah should be like the first, full of novelty and discovery.

And that is indeed the case if we only allow our growth and maturation since the last time to detect what we were incapable of seeing before. The lens through which we look at Torah is always being modified by experience. The great German philosopher Hegel stated this deep truth in a striking way: “The absolute idea may be compared to the old man, who utters the same religious doctrines as the child, but for whom they signify his entire life. The child in contrast may understand the religious content. But all of life and the whole world still exist outside it.” Thus the creed with which we began, “Moses charged us with the Torah . . .” contains the same words for toddler and grandparent alike, yet the meaning they carry for each could not be more different.

A poignant episode in the life of Kafka recasts that phenomenon in narrative form. On his last visit to Berlin before his death from tuberculosis, Kafka happened upon a little girl crying inconsolably in the park he frequented. When he asked her why all the tears, she confided that she had lost her favorite doll. Kafka tried to comfort her. The doll was not lost at all. It had merely taken a trip and he had in fact run into it not long before. He was quite sure the doll would soon return. The next day Kafka brought the little girl a letter from her doll full of descriptions and anecdotes. And each day thereafter, he produced another letter for his newfound friend. On his last day in Berlin, Kafka came to the park once again. This time however, he brought a doll with him which he tenderly presented to her. But she was not to be consoled. The doll did not resemble the one she loved so dearly. “Of course, it’s your doll,” Kafka insisted. “The long journey and many experiences have merely changed the way she looks.”

For millennia Jews have pored over the same sacred canon. But history has recorded its effects in their understanding of its words. Alongside the Written Torah of Moses, unfolded and accumulated the Oral Torah of Israel, befitting the settings and sensibilities, the dilemmas and disputes of generations of Jewish interpreters, who coupled ingenuity with reverence and freedom with fidelity. As experience proliferated layers upon layers of meaning, the underlying sacred text remained immutable, effectively yielding a canon without closure, ever open to new readings. The concept of a dual Torah spawned a discourse over the ages that embraces both continuity and change.

Thus Simhat Torah, which is the latest of the traditional Jewish holidays (not found in either the Tanakh or the Talmud), celebrates a religious culture founded on the plasticity of the written word. The Torah we are about to begin anew is not exactly the one we have just finished, because in the intervening year we ourselves have changed.

Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Simhat Torah 5765 are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.