Dear TEE community,
Next week we will conclude our holiday season with Simchat Torah, the festival on which we end and again begin the annual cycle of Torah readings. This custom of finishing Deuteronomy and immediately starting Genesis is symbolic of our own process of renewal after the high holidays. We have closed the story of the past year and opened a new page for the coming one. But we don’t erase or forget what has gone before, rather we incorporate and understand it in a new way.
One version of the word “Jews” in sign language uses the signs for “Torah people,” a wonderful way of understanding what makes us Jewish. The scholar Michael Satlow defines a Jew as someone who is seriously engaged in the conversation which begins with the words of the Torah and expands out through generations of commentary, from the rabbis to our own time. Authors Amos Oz and Fania Sulzberger-Oz have written that Jews “don’t have bloodlines, we have text lines.” The Torah is what connects and binds us to one another. Yet one of my most difficult jobs as a rabbi is to convince individuals that engaging with the text of the Torah is both possible and worthwhile.
In part, I think this is because content of much of the Torah is seen as irrelevant to modern life. The Torah remains true to its meaning as “instruction,” not because it has all the answers but because it has so many questions. Despite the profound changes in the three thousand years since its composition, we have not yet come up with definitive answers for the most profound issues of human existence. Studying Torah engages us in the continued exploration of those issues. What is our purpose? What is our nature? How do we live with other human beings? With the natural world? How do we distinguish good from bad in practice, not just theory? Why is there suffering? Why are some of our most painful struggles with those closest to us? How do we live a life of meaning and joy?
The Talmud teaches, “The more Torah, the more life.” I believe this is true of both individuals and communities. As we observe Simchat Torah and celebrate the centrality of the Torah to our Jewishness, I hope this may be a time to consider how we might bring more Torah learning into our lives. In addition to our weekly Saturday morning Torah group (which is always thrilled to welcome new people!), now that our Friday services are again in person we will also have more opportunity for Torah discussion. I am also always delighted to be a resource for individual study or conversation.
I look forward to celebrating Simchat Torah with you.
Rabbi Drorah Setel