I have a friend who is a practicing Jew, although not a person of conventionally devout temperament. She is a tenacious, full-hearted Jew, but you won’t hear her spouting pieties. Nevertheless, on the morning of Simchat Torah, when the last Torah portion of the annual cycle of readings from the Five Books of Moses is read in her synagogue, she always finds herself weeping. It never fails, she says; she is inexplicably overcome at the death of Moses every year, downright inconsolable in fact—until she remembers that ‘he comes around again’ in the liturgy of the following year.
To her on this morning Moses is no distant hero, and his story—and the story of the Hebrew children he liberates and leads and begs God to spare when they get up to unforgivable mischief in the wilderness—no mere ‘bible story.” He is her liberator and leader, the story of the people her story. Her memory is so collective it’s personal, like the pre-teen Jewish kid in a New Jersey middle school class about culture who, when asked to summon up his very first childhood memory, declared without missing a beat, “I remember Abraham.”
And so my friend weeps on Simchat Torah, overwhelmed with sadness that Moses has died. She doesn’t get that weepy over all the weekly parshas, to be sure; but there’s something about finishing the story, coming to the end, that affects her deeply. The gift of the liturgy, however, is that the very next week, it starts all over again with the reading from Genesis—“In the beginning…”
When we Christian lectionary preachers complain about getting bored when this story or that one comes up again in the 3-year cycle and we have to preach on it again, I think about my friend weeping over the death of Moses. When we chafe under the repetitious nature of preaching with a lectionary to begin with, or we wish we could tell some other story because we don’t resonate with a particular text—it just doesn’t speak to me, we say— I think of her sadness. Her sadness because it is ending, and her joy when it all begins again. And when we are bent over our commentaries or searching the internet looking for a new angle to preach, something relevant to say, something ‘creative’ we can do with these texts, I think of the festival of Simchat Torah, when the scrolls are taken out and handed ‘round to be kissed and danced and acclaimed, the festival when critical questions cease for just a little while so that love can take over the room.
Chaim Potok writes about the experience of a young Orthodox Jew named David Laurie in a scene from his novel, In the Beginning. There’s a question for us gentiles at the end of the scene that I am trying to hear. That I am trying to answer. Maybe you want to think about it too.
“I remember one night when we danced with the Torah scrolls in our little synagogue. It was the night of Simchat Torah, the festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. The last portion of the Five Books of Moses would be read the next morning. The little synagogue was crowded and tumultuous with joy. I remember one white-bearded Torah-reader dancing with one of the heavy scrolls, as if he had miraculously shed his years. My father and my uncle danced for what seemed an interminable time, circling about one another, rocking their scrolls, backing off, singing. Saul and Alex and I danced too. I relinquished my scroll to someone in the crowd and went out the rear door to the back porch, and let the air cool my face. The noise and the dancing came clearly through the open windows; and undulating swelling and receding, thinning and growing and receding, and thinning and growing sound. The joy of dancing with Torah, rocking it and holding it close to your heart, the very word of God. And I wondered if gentiles ever danced with their Bible. Hey, Tony and Eddie: do you ever rock it and hold it and know how much you love it?”