As so, as it finally begins to feel like autumn out there, we come to the end of our cycle of fall festivals with a slightly mismatched couple: Shemini Atzeret (our most obscure holiday) and Simchat Torah (in many ways our most joyous one). I’ll speak in shul about the nature of Shemini Atzeret, the redoubtable “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly,” and the specific reason we recite the Yizkor service on that day despite its proximity to Yom Kippur, when we also recite it. But since I more or less never have the chance to speak from the bimah about Simchat Torah, I’d like to write a bit about that festival here in this space.
It is, by all accounts, a relatively late addition to our festal calendar, a holiday not only unmentioned in the Bible but also unknown to the sages of the Talmud. And yet Simchat Torah has surely found its place in Jewish life, this annual celebration of the lectionary cycle that begins and ends on the same day as we wrap up our annual reading of the Torah with the last words in the scroll and immediately begin reading anew from a scroll pre-rolled to its very first lines. I believe, in fact, that it is from that specific detail—not just that we finish reading the Torah each year and start reading again, but that we do so in contiguous aliyot on the same day so that the seam between last year’s reading and this year’s is somehow both obvious and barely perceptible—that the charm of the festival derives. That, after all, creates an interesting relationship between the way we live our lives and the way we relate to the Torah that guides those same lives forward, the former best conceptualized as a straight line that we follow forward through the years of our lives and the latter, more reasonably as an endlessly rotating circle that takes us back and back again to the same stories, the same laws, the same poems, and the same prophecies regarding a future that never seems quite to arrive.
The Torah is thus a text fixed in place, an unchanging foundation stone that rotates in place so that all of its facets and details end up on display on at least once in the course of the year but which itself, for all it endlessly revolves, does not itself undergo any sort of aging process. Perhaps the best model would be the earth itself, which rotates endlessly on its axis but which undergoes change so subtly and over such impossibly long periods of time that only in our own day have scientists become able to perceive those changes at all. The Torah works the same way. Our interpretations may develop over time, but the laws themselves are the same ones that challenged our ancestors millennia ago. The stories that we find either satisfying or troubling are also the same ones those same forebears contemplated annually as some baal koreh or another read them to them aloud. But it is precisely that combination of cyclicality and immutability, particularly when considered against the vagaries of Jewish history, that lends such romance—and also such noble grandeur—to our endless effort to keep reading, continually to confront the same texts over and over, to allow ourselves to live within the Torah in some analogous way to how the scrolls themselves live among us—physically in the Holy Arks in our sanctuaries and emotionally in our hearts and minds.
The Torah does not change, but we do. And as we grow through the years of our lives, we don’t alter slightly or inconsequentially, but meaningfully and dramatically. That, in and of itself, is hardly an innovative thought—that we change as we grow older—nor is it a feature of life that we do not share with other people. But although all people grow from stage to stage as they become older, not everybody has a background against which to age that itself is fixed in place and unchanging in quite the way our Torah is. And so, as we hear these stories that do not change while we ourselves are in a state of ongoing metamorphosis, the Torah becomes the backdrop to our lives and the unchanging standard against which we measure our growth through the decades. When measured against the endless progression of Torah readings, the questions that present themselves as we grow older are, to say the very least, challenging ones. Have we become wiser or more foolish as the years have passed? Have we internalized the Torah’s deepest lessons by allowing the text to frame the way we see the world and to animate our understanding of our place in the world…or have we allowed familiarity to make us deaf to those lessons and unresponsive to their implications? Are we still as worthy of hearing the lessons read aloud each week as we were as younger people…or have we allowed the endless repetition of the same passages to lull us into a spiritual stupor, if not actually to put us to sleep? In other words, does the course of our lives forward through the years reflect the background that the ever-ongoing public reading of the Torah affords us…or have we come merely to pay lip service to the idea that the Torah is the foundation upon which the house of the House of Israel rests?
And that brings me to Simchat Torah, because it is that precise combination of flux and fixity, of change and changelessness, that the festival celebrates—for me personally, at least—the most meaningfully. There is a seam, obviously, between last year’s cycle of readings and this year’s, but other than enjoying hearing the people honored with the final aliyah of last year’s cycle and the first of next year’s called forward, we hardly nod to it. At a certain point, obviously, we switch scrolls—but there is no ritual that attends that switch, no benediction to recite, no prayer to offer up as we begin the cycle anew. We do it, but we make a point of hardly noticing that we are doing it. And, of course, that too matches the way we live as well: we nod vaguely to the seams between stages either as we move forward through adolescence to young adulthood, and from young adulthood to middle age, and from middle age to our older years. Yet, for all those seams obviously exist, we resist ritualizing them—there’s a reason no one manufactures “Welcome to Old Age” cards—and merely move past them on our lives’ journeys. And that is what Simchat Torah is all about: the notion that the endless cycle of Torah readings is meant to be the backdrop against which we live our lives, the seams often hard to notice…but the linear development of our lives measured against the endless cycle of Torah reading in a way somehow provocative and soothing at the same time.
I wish you all a chag sameiach. The link between Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah often seems obscure—Yizkor and the Prayer for Rain dominating the one, and the celebration of the Torah itself the other. But they really do go together well. Yizkor reminds us of our mortality. T’fillat Geshem reminds us of our fragility. And Simchat Torah reminds us that growing older does not have to be a misery to be avoided for as long as possible…because in the opportunity Jewish life affords us to age against the living backdrop of the weekly Torah lesson lies the possibility of conquering the fears we all harbor concerning the aging process. Yes, tradition teaches, it’s true that youth is vigor and strength. But with age comes wisdom…and particularly meaningfully for those who age in a straight line drawn against an endlessly rotating circle of Torah readings and lessons.