Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat Simchat Torah 5757-5765
Unbroken Circle


This is my annual Simchat Torah musing, originally written in 1996. I repeat it once again, with the additional comments I have added over the years, plus some new thoughts for this year.

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Simchat Torah 5757ff - Unbroken Circle

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.

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Some additional thoughts from 5760

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.

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Some additional thoughts from 5761

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 is my first year teaching Judaics and Hebrew to the 1st and 2nd graders at Nashville's Akiva School. And while I have 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 find 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.

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Some additional thoughts from 5763

And now I begin my second year as Director of Education here in Alexandria, VA. At Beth El Hebrew Congregation. Even after a year, it still feels new, as new as it did one year ago, and as new as I felt at Akiva School in Nashville just two years ago. Only now, I have ten times as many students to be amazed with, and learn from. They are a constant reminder of the need to be able to read Torah without the trappings of our own paradigms. I have listened to an astounding array of student interpretations to challenge even the most scholarly and knowledgeable of teachers and experts. Education is truly, as I told my staff last year, a "full-duplex" process, and we often learn as much, if not more, from those we are teaching, than we teach them.

It's all a circle. We teach as we learn and learn as we teach. The Torah does not end, it keeps on going, like the Energizer Bunny, year after year. Our children are part of the circle, which, although it appears linear as it passes from generation to generation, is really just part of the greater circle that links all of us who stood at Sinai-our ancestors as well as our descendants. And it all makes perfect sense, because all of it is the creation of the ultimate circle without end--Gd. If you'll forgive the borrowing of a metaphor from a good 'ol Christian Gospel tune, let us all play our part so that the circle will not be broken.

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Some Additional Thoughts for 5764

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.


Some additional thoughts for 5765

And here I am beginning my second year at Bethesda Jewish Congregation. And while each of the various places I have worked over the years differs somewhat, the cycle of the Jewish year remains a constant. The holidays come and go. The Torah is read and read again. The religious school year and the cycle of fall Jewish holidays comes around. On the one hand, all of this has a familiar feel to it, no matter the setting or location. And there is a certain sense of comfort in that familiarity. At the same time, each year, each experience of religious school, the Yamim Noraim, et al is different, and has its own unique lessons. And so it is with Torah. So it is with life. Torah is truly, as I have often referred to her, Gd's owners manual for human beings and the universe. What's truly amazing is that every time you turn to the Torah to read the instructions, they somehow seem to adapt themselves to present circumstances.

Thus, while the cycles repeat, for Gd and for us, it is always continuous creation. With each encounter we create anew, building upon what is already there, teasing out new things, sometimes even discovering radically different and new things.

As long as we all remain partners in Gd's continuous creation, the circle will remain unbroken. C'mon partner, let's go do our part!

Moadim, L'Simchah


©1997,1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on the same parasha:

Simchat Torah 5766--Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5764-Circling the Torah--A Story of Chelm
Simchat Torah 5762--Not So Fast

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