Simchat Torah and the art of re-reading
Simchat Torah is a strange and significant moment in our cultural lives. At this fateful moment we read the end of the book of Deuteronomy and begin again at Genesis. We turn, yet again, from the end of the Torah back to its very beginning. Imagine this as a moment of cultural choice. In cultures that are not based around a primary canonical text there is a free choice of what stories to read. But a culture based around a core canonical text needs to continually refocus its adherents towards that core text in order to sustain its identity. Built into the very concept of a closed canonical culture is the notion that at a certain point the story will be stopped. When we reach the end of the Torah we put the story of Joshua to one side, along with the entire historiography of the conquest of Canaan; we turn our backs on the future and head back towards pre-history. The biblical canon is brought to life, or better, “given a constantly renewable lease on life” (Yerushalmi, “Zachor”), by our predetermined relationship with re-reading.
Simchat Torah becomes then a celebration of our eternal relationship with our unchanging text. That moment of turning back to the beginning epitomises our commitment to that which is fixed in our lives. The interpretation of this eternal text may be fluid and evolving, but to the text itself, the lynchpin of our cultural lives, we return yet again at Simchat Torah and commit ourselves in perpetuity.
Here at Kol Nefesh we have special things to celebrate at Simchat Torah. We are a community with a large number of active Torah readers. The ethos of our inclusive community allows for all adult members of the kehilla to participate in this communal obligation. We view reading Torah as the right and inheritance of the whole kehilla, for the Torah is “Morasha Kehillat Ya’akov” – the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.
Reading Torah is a weighty obligation on the community; it requires us to dedicate many hours to learning and memorising text and trope. But it is also an amazing opportunity to have a primary, personal, visceral experience of our eternal text; an opportunity to personally touch, feel and transmit some of the oldest and deepest stories on our planet.
It is not enough to be a community where the halachic doors have been opened to permit everyone to enter. I have a fantasy that we will become the first community where every adult member participates in reading Torah, if only one or two verses, every year. This would be a community where all members were committed to both carrying the burden of community, and to sharing the joy of transmitting our amazing canonical heritage.
For such a community Simchat Torah would truly be a significant moment of coming together to joyfully re-dedicate ourselves to re-reading the tradition for another year.
Rabbi Joel Levy