Simchat Torah: Two Metaphors
By Reb David
Simchat Torah, “the joy of Torah,” not only culminates the High Holiday season but also offers two metaphors to envision the Jewish place in the world. On Simchat Torah, we end the Torah scroll with the story of Moses’ death and the image of his successor, Joshua, about to lead Israel across the Jordan River. The metaphors of Simchat Torah arise in what we read next.
On Simchat Torah, we immediately slingshot from Deuteronomy to Genesis, from the end to the beginning — from the death of Moses to the primordial Creation of heaven and earth, the void, the deep, “Let there be light!” The story never ends: as Rabbi Rachel Barenblat penned in her now-famous poem, Torah is a Mobius strip linking end to beginning eternally, with a twist in the middle. We ourselves are the twist: we are different each time we read, so each year we bring new awareness to how we encounter the recurring story. So one way of understanding Simchat Torah is a Mobius strip, each year starting anew with a twist.
Another way to understand Simchat Torah is less cyclical and more linear. The Torah narrative ends after Moses dies, but Haftarah continues with the Book of Joshua, which we begin reading on Simchat Torah. On this day, we cross the Jordan River after 40 years of roaming the desert, and a new chapter in Jewish history begins.
So Simchat Torah honors two ways that Jews can understand time. One is as a cycle (beginning Torah again, as a Mobius strip); another is as a linear flow (continuing across the river into the next chapter). Jewish time is both beginning and continuing — a constant cycle and a flow toward the future.
Simchat Torah also honors two ways that Jews understand ourselves. The linear reading from Moses to Joshua continues a Jewish story, following a tribe that becomes a group of freed slaves maturing into a people with a unique history. This is the reading that flows from Deuteronomy into Joshua, across the Jordan River and toward modernity. The cyclical reading that loops back to Genesis, however, loops us into the flow of all things. All things started at Creation — all life, all love, all death, all peoples, all faiths, all flaws. So on Simchat Torah, while our linear reading resides in Jewish history, our cyclical reading arcs in universal history.
In this way, Simchat Torah also honors two ways that Jews can understand ourselves. In one, Jews are a particularistic people with a unique history; in another, Jews are part of the universal flow of the human experience. Jewish identity is both.
So on Simchat Torah, as we strike up the band and dance with joy, we will celebrate the paradoxes of time and peoplehood — both linear and cycling, separate and connected, continuing forever and also starting anew. Holding them all together is what Simchat Torah is all about. All of them together are worth celebrating: they are gifts to us, and to the world. Chag sameach.