For some liberal Jews, Simchat Torah begins tonight. For many other Jews, tonight marks the beginning of Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah begins tomorrow evening. Not wishing to take a stand one way or the other, I offer instead, something a little different for Simchat Torah. A little story for you to enjoy. After the story, my traditional musing for Simchat Torah. Enjoy.
Everyone knows that the people of Chelm are not exactly the wisest of all folks in the world. But we can learn so many lessons from them. Here's one those lessons.
Everyone in Chelm was very excited. Soon, Simchat Torah would be here. Even though everyone was busy visiting and sukkah-hopping all over the town during these days of Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot, the intermediate days of Sukkot, there was nevertheless excitement over the day of celebration that would soon arrive.
Only one person in town was a little worried about the arrival of Simchat Torah, and that was their beloved Rabbi. Chelm was a poor town, and their one synagogue had only one sefer Torah, one holy scroll. Each year, the Rabbi dreaded the long wait as he slowly and carefully rolled the Torah back from the final parashat of V'zot Habracha to the very beginning of B'reishit. Their scroll was old, the giddin, the threads binding the sheets of the scroll together, were weak, and great care and much time was needed to roll the Torah without damaging it.
The Rabbi thought and thought to try and come up with an easier way, but simply couldn't think of anything. So he decided to ask some of the wise people of Chelm. He went out around the town to seek some advice. First he encountered Menachem the fishmonger. The Rabbi explained his dilemma to Menachem, who thought for a moment and said, "Rabbi, you are surely a learned and educated man. You must know the entire holy Torah by heart. Why don't you just recite the last part from memory and already have the scroll wound to the beginning?"
"Ah, Menachem," said the Rabbi. "If only it were that simple. But the words of our holy Torah are simply too important to take the chance of even the slightest mistake. I must have the holy words in front of my eyes, in that beautifully drawn script, in order to be sure I am chanting the words correctly."
Just then, Shmuel the blacksmith, who had been listening in, said "Ah, Rabbi. I am not a highly educated man, but even I know that the Torah scroll contains only letters, and not the vowels, nor the special symbols that indicate how to chant the words. So you must be studying those elsewhere and then saying them from memory as your read the Torah. Is this not so, Rabbi?"
The Rabbi was stunned briefly to learn of the breadth of Shmuel's knowledge. It had never occurred to him before that the simple townsfolk of Chelm were so learned in these things. He recovered quickly, never betraying a moment of his surprise, and said to both men: "It is true, what you say, Shmuel, that the vowels and trope markings are not in the scroll--nevertheless, when I read the scroll, it is as if I see them before me, as if Gd's hand is guiding me as I read. No, it is simply not right for me to read from memory. Thank you both, Menachem and Shmuel for your ideas, but I must find another way. I bid you good day and wish you a Chag Sameach!"
"Chag Sameach, Rabbi" both men cheerfully replied, and went on about their business, while the Rabbi headed for the town square.
Shopping at a stall in the square, the Rabbi came upon Yaakov the butcher. He explained once again his conundrum.
"Why, it's simple!" said Yaakov. "Simply cut off the last sheet of the scroll and sew it on to the beginning!"
"I cannot do that," the flabbergasted Rabbi responded. "I am not a sofer, who would know how to properly undue and retie the giddin. Besides, it just isn't done. It's not right to change the order of the holy Torah."
In the next stall, Yankel the bookbinder had been eavesdropping. "I have a solution," he whispered excitedly to the Rabbi. "Come over here and let me tell you." So the Rabbi thanked Yaakov, wished him a Chag Sameach and stepped over the Yankel's stall.
"Roll the scroll backwards," said Yankel. "You'll wind up with the beginning and the end near each other." Yaakov smiled, thinking himself quite clever.
"But then the scroll would be upside down" said the Rabbi. "That is simply not permissible. Besides, my clever Yankel, the beginning and end of there scroll would still be rolled up on the insides. No, I must find another way. I must figure it out for myself."
Moving on through the market, the Rabbi came across Devorah, the dairyman's wife, hurrying through the market, working feverishly to herd her eight children along while she did her shopping. " I heard," shouted Devorah at the passing Rabbi, "that you were looking for a way to make it easier to read from the beginning and end of the Torah. Now of course, my addled brain isn't usually full of brilliant ideas, but just a short time ago, while I was giving my youngest Shimi here a bath, it came to me. It's an absolutely brilliant idea, I think..."
Four of Devorah's children were slowly sneaking off towards the candy staff. The Rabbi gave them a quick stern glance and they all sheepishly returned to be near their mother with their other siblings. Turning his attention back to Devorah, the Rabbi heard, "...well I was so excited I dropped my cousin's letter right into the wash tub with Shimi. All of a sudden, I could see the letters through the other side. And that's when it came to me, Rabbi. You should soak the Torah in a washtub full of hot water, and you'll be able to read through it right from the end to the beginning!"
"No, no!" said the Rabbi. "That simply will not do. We simply cannot immerse the holy Torah scroll in water. Who knows what might happen. You are good woman, Devorah, but perhaps you should go now and run after your children, who all seem to be stuffing their pockets with goodies from Nahum's candy stall over there."
Devorah nodded her head to the Rabbi, and turned and ran towards Nahum's candy stall, shouting "Children....No....What have your Father and I taught you?....What will I say to Gd? More than that, what will your father say when I tell him what thieves he has for children?"
The Rabbi wisely decided to head in the opposite direction. He came across Aryeh, one of Chelm's more learned citizens, and the town beadle.
"Ah, Aryeh, I...."
"I've heard, I've heard, Rabbi. You need a way to make it easier to get from the end of the Torah to the beginning on Simchat Torah. Well, I have an idea, the best one I am sure you will have heard. What you should do is use a horse, like I do when I go around town making important announcements."
"Aryeh, I don't understand. How will that help me?"
"Ah, I forget to tell you...you have to unroll the Torah it's whole length and set it on some tables, stretched out. You'll read from the end, then mount your horse and quickly ride to the other end where you will read again." Aryeh beamed with pride.
"Aryeh, I hardly think that's a practical solution. Still, I think there's a seed of an idea in what you are...
Just then, the Rabbi felt a insistent tugging on his coat. He looked down and saw little Daniel, the cobbler's son. "I have an idea for you, Rabbi," he said, shyly.
The Rabbi was so frustrated that he almost dismissed the boy off-handedly, but something made him stop, and with great patience, he looked right at little Daniel and said "Tell me, Daniel, what your idea is."
"A circle," said Daniel.
"A circle?," guffawed Aryeh. "What does this little cheder boy know? Rabbi, my idea is surely the best."
"A circle ? ," repeated the Rabbi. "How could that work?" He turned to Aryeh and said, "You know, Aryeh, I think little Daniel may be on to something here."
"Rabbi, he's just a child! ," Aryeh stammered. But the Rabbi just started mumbling to himself. "Circle. Torah. Simchat Torah. Beginning. End."
"Well, if you don't want the best idea..." Aryeh trailed off as he turned and walked away.
The Rabbi was now talking out loud to himself. "The scroll goes in a straight line, and rolls out from one end to the other. How could it go in a circle?" Yet ideas were forming in the Rabbi's mind. Is not Simchat Torah a celebration of the closing of the circle of reading Torah?" He stopped, and bent down to speak to Daniel face to face.
"Yes, indeed, Daniel. Simchat Torah is a time when we celebrate a great circle. I am still not sure how hits will help me, but I am intrigued." To himself, the Rabbi thought: "Perhaps, just perhaps, Gd has sent me a little angel to help."
"Tell me more of your idea, Daniel."
"Rabbi, is it not true that the Torah, as great as it is, does not stand on its own? Gd needs us to hold up the Torah."
"Those are wise words, indeed, Daniel. I see you have been paying attention in cheder. But how does this help me get from the end of the Torah to the beginning."
"Rabbi," said Daniel, "not only must we hold up the Torah in our hearts, we must do it with our hands."
"Also wise words, little one, but I still don't see how this helps me."
"We must hold up the Torah with our hands, and make a circle with it. Then you can move quickly from the end to the beginning."
Awareness suddenly dawned in the Rabbi's face, and he smiled a great big smile.
"It seems that somehow I always learn more from my students than they learn from me. Thank you, Daniel. You have brought the answer to my prayers. My Gd bless and keep you. Moadim L'Simcha, Daniel."
And with that, the Rabbi ran home to begin to make arrangements for Simchat Torah. There were many considerations and concerns still to be dealt with, but the Rabbi was certain that little Daniel's idea could work.
There was a great deal of buzz around Chelm when the Rabbi sent around a message to everyone to ask them to all wear good shoes and clean gloves for Simchat Torah. But the good people of Chelm all complied. After all, their great and beloved Rabbi had made the request.
On Simchat Torah, the Rabbi put Daniel's idea in action. After the Torah was taken out and paraded about the town seven times, it was time to open it up and read from it. The Rabbi instructed all the people of the town to form a great circle. He asked everyone to number off by twos, which, this being Chelm, was no small task and took longer that it might otherwise have in some other town. He then asked all the achat's to hold their arms out with their gloved hands facing up, and all the shtayim's to hold their arms out high with their gloved hands facing down. With Daniel's father, Moshe the cobbler, holding one end of the Torah, the Rabbi, with Daniel helping, slowly unrolled the entire length of the Torah, gently resting it the gloved hands of all the number ones, and carefully having all the number twos supporting the top edge. Soon, the entire Torah was unrolled, and the end and the beginning were right next to each other in the circle. The blessings were said, and the Rabbi leyned from V'zot Habracha. After more blessings, the Rabbi moved on to B'reishit. The good people of Chelm were amazed at how quickly the Rabbi was able to get from one to the other! No need to roll back the entire Torah.
Before the Torah was rolled back up, the Rabbi and Daniel each took turns replacing the good people of Chelm who were holding up the Torah, giving each one the chance to walk the complete circle and view the entire Torah in one pass. It was an awesome and incredible experience, and one no one in Chelm had ever had before.
Then, slowly and carefully, the Rabbi and Daniel rolled the Torah, and the services and festivities continued. All the people of Chelm were so thrilled and happy with this new innovation, and this clever solution to an old problem. They remembered his contribution when, years later, they elected Daniel ben Moshe the Mayor of Chelm. In more recent times, a statue was erected in the town square of Daniel the great Rabbi of his time and a few unnamed townsfolk, holding up a Torah in a circle. And to this very day, this is how the Torah is read on Simchat Torah in Chelm, right on that very spot.
Adrian ©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
I hope you enjoyed my little story. I offer now, my traditional Simchat Torah musing, with some new thoughts for this year.
The cycle comes around again. Fresh from our self-evaluation of the New Year and connection to our roots that Sukkot so poignantly reminds us of, we reach the end (or is it the beginning ?) of "this blessing" that the One bestowed upon us through Moshe, Torah. We get a fresh chance to again hear, read, and learn from these ancient words.
There, that sounded sufficiently religious, no? How easy it is, with mere words, to convey a deepness, a richness, a spirituality that may indeed only be superficial. How easily we can be moved (or led astray) by words that have the "just right" flavor for a religious "sound byte." But life isn't about platitudes, carefully crafted homilies, and simplified reductions of complex thoughts. It's about living. Living our words. Living our deeds. Living our faith.
Sharing a message that has all the earmarks of a "Hallmark" card is easy. As is, given the proper scholarly study, sharing a message that purports to bring the unlearned to greater understanding. One could easily jump from link to link on the web and create a message with impressive scholarly content.
None of this is meant to imply that anything written or spoken by anyone else isn't what it purports to be, or has any less intrinsic value than anything else said by anyone else. This message is about a personal commitment. One I am making and would recommend to you, chaverim. As we renew the cycle of reading Torah, it's an appropriate time to make a commitment to ourselves for using this next yearly cycle to truly study (or study further) the words of the Torah. We should (and must) turn for assistance in understanding them to the many in past ages and in our own that have shared their own insights and thoughts. But we need first look in our own minds and hearts, and not discount our own interpretations, nor disregard them simply because they may disagree with the interpretations of another of greater repute.
Be a scholar unto yourself.
I wrote a paper the other day for a theology class. It was about revelation and scripture. I based it on my favorite piece of Torah-Deuteronomy 30:11-14. This is the "lo bashamayim hi" speech. To me, it says that we humans are an integral part of the revelation of Gd. Intermediaries not required. The Torah is not in heaven, not across the sea, not too baffling for us. It is there for us to understand and interpret. (Surely by now we all know the Talmudic story of Rabbi Eliezer and the Bat Kol. If you don't, ask your local Rabbi or sage. Sadly, the all important last part if often left off - the part in which Gd states "My children have defeated me.")
We must be cautious, however. Emanual Levinas writes in an essay on "Revelation in the Jewish Tradition" that we must not "leave revelation to the arbitrariness of subjective fantasies." How true this is. But we must also not be afraid to explore the text and see what we find. For only when we seek the Torah as near to us will we find it where it has been all along: in our mouths and our hearts.
These are trying times. No matter the Jewish activity one is engaged in, it seems impossible not to be thinking about events in Israel. It is my fervent prayer that next year, at this time, when I again circulate this annual Simchat Torah musing, that Israel and all its inhabitants will be blessed with peace.
This was my first year teaching Judaics and Hebrew to the 1st and 2nd graders at Nashville's Akiva School. And while I had been teaching since late August and had the opportunity to enlighten these wonderful, eager and bright-eyed students about the parashat hashavua since then, I still found this Simchat Torah somewhat of a milestone, a marker, a symbol of a fresh beginning, a chance for a new reading. For, as I work to make the Torah fresh and available to these 1st and 2nd graders, as I have done for older students before, I, too, am learning new ways into the text, and new ways to help others find their way into the text as well-especially these young ones.
No experience serves to reinforce the lesson of the 4 sons from the Pesach Seder, or the interpretation of the 4 species of Sukkot as 4 types of Jews, more than these experiences in teaching 1st and 2nd graders Torah. The theological depths to which their young minds can extend continually amaze me. Why just today, a 1st grader asked "who created Gd?" That's one kind of student. Later, another student, a practical one, asked why the Torah scrolls weren't mounted on some kind of motor, so they could easily be rolled to where they needed to be. Another asked if it was OK to dance with the Torah even if he didn't think it was all true. And then there's the quiet one. You really can see the wheels turning when you look at his face, but he just can't seem to express what he is thinking. To him, I think, Gd may bestow the gift of deep and keen understanding of the Torah. Would that I am a good enough teacher to enable this young boy to grow into a man who knows how to share his insights. For, while Torah herself tells us she is not too baffling, that she is not inaccessible, as we grow and mature, it seems our ability to understand is impaired by the baggage we accrue. We need to find a way to keep the innocence of youth as part of our view into Torah.
So, even in these troubled times, reasons aplenty to rejoice with the Torah as we celebrate the start of another cycle.
Yet another new beginning for me, here at my new congregation, new religious school, new community. Not the 60 or so students from wonderful Akiva school in Nashville, but now the 360 students at Beth El in Alexandria, VA.
I don't have as much of the one-on-one experience with the students, not being in the classroom teaching all the time, but I do still see the sparkle in the eyes of students, the furrowed brows of questions, and pensive look of those lost in thought, seeking answers to new questions. I'm working very hard every day to respond to them not with platitudes, or appropriately religious sounding phrases, but rather with the true language that comes from realizing that the Torah is a gift I can share with each of them.
And another new beginning. Although I've been at my new congregation since July, it all still feels quite new, and exciting. More so, as Bethesda Jewish Congregation is a bit smaller, and I do have more time to really interact with the students. Here, more so than any place I have been, I am striving to offer my students and my congregation more than mere platitudes. Each day of school I encounter eager, open minds and hearts. I must be careful what I offer to them.
We continue to live in very troubling times. Hopes for peace in the middle east are at a new low. Our country has suffered the trauma of 9/11, and here we are recalling the sniper terror of last year.
What can I offer my students, my congregation, to help them cope with all of this? Well, there it is, right in front of me. The Torah, ready to begin a new teaching us how to live, how to be good human beings. Tonight, as I hand each of our new religious school students a miniature Torah scroll at Consecration services, I know that a tremendous task lies before me, our teachers, our parents, and, indeed, all of us. We must not shirk from it.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.
©1997,1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Previous musings on the same parasha
Torah 5766--Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5757-5765-Unbroken Circle
Simchat Torah 5762--Not So Fast
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