By P.J. Schwartz
Every year, the season of reflection and renewal is culminated by the celebration of Simchat Torah (literally “the rejoicing of the Torah”). On this day, we read the concluding section of Deuteronomy and immediately thereafter return to Genesis and read the creation narrative.
The last verses of the Book of Deuteronomy remind us that never again would there be a leader like Moses, who uniquely dialogued with God panim el panim, face to face. I have always understood these final words to be the redactor’s (editor’s) eulogy for Moses, yet there is no statement in our text that explicitly states that Moses dies. Perhaps he stood looking at the horizon, watching the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Perhaps, in a metaphysical sense, Moses never really dies: His legacy continues and serves as a reminder for us, as Jews, to recall the values in which our Torah is immersed. The 1999 Pittsburg Platform alludes to the idea that we understand Torah as something that we can take wherever we go. So too, perhaps we take Moses – and his relationship with God – with us each time we not only read our Torah, but allow its words to become part of our being.
This idea of internalizing the words of Torah elevates the notion that “torah” (note the little “t”) means teaching. How much the more so does the Torah (with the big “T”) teach us? What lessons does it have for us to learn and re-learn each time we read from it? Immediately after we end Deuteronomy and are reminded not only who Moses was but who he represents, we read from Genesis. We begin again, experiencing the wonders of creation. With God’s breath, all of life comes into being, and all that is created is good. While Moses may have encountered God face to face, all of humanity contains sparks of the Divine within. Created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, all of our actions are a reflection of God. Deep within us is our best – our Torah, then, the Teaching – reminding us of what is good, what our best is, and the potential we have for greatness.
Even though the season for reflection and renewal has ended, our Jewish cycle allows us to constantly turn and return to opportunities for our Judaism to inspire us, to motivate us, and to strengthen our souls. Our Torah ends with the reminder that we all can be like Moses – imperfect, but great leaders and representatives of God – and our Torah begins with the reminder that we already can be what we want to become – created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, our potential is endless.
May this Simchat Torah truly be a joyful one/ Let us all celebrate the gift of Torah, what we can learn from it, and the possibilities of where we go on this journey.
P.J. Schwartz is entering his final year at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH. In addition to his rabbinical studies, P.J. earned a Masters in Educational Administration with a Specialization in Jewish Studies at Xavier University. He has served congregations in Marion, IN, Ishpeming MI, and Marion IN. He is currently a rabbinic intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple and Jewish Family Service in Cincinnati, OH .