The Ongoing Communication of Torah

October 13th: Simchat Torah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we conclude Deuteronomy on Simchat Torah, why do we re-start everything and begin reading Genesis again? Haven’t we already covered everything?!

Our constant repetition of the Torah is a sign of our devotion to God and to our tradition of holiness, but, there is more.

We are taught that God knows everything—because God created everything—and that Torah is the way we access the Mind of God. Some Sages teach that every possible bit of knowledge is included in the Torah—in the seventy levels of interpretation for every word and letter. Many moderns may not go this far, but there is a case to be made for the attitude that Torah gives us as we approach the many kinds of information available to us. Whether we learn scientific facts or technological possibilities or artistic insights, the mindset we develop in studying Torah can help us approach all our new information with equanimity and holiness. Perhaps this is what the ancient Sage, Ben Bag Bag, meant in his famous advice about the Torah: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” (Avot 5.22)

There is also the awareness that different messages come through to us in subsequent readings. Look at all the Midrashim: some rabbi somewhere noticed something different about a passage, and the world of interpretive possibilities grew. Hillel was not the first person to read the passage about eating the matzah and bitter herbs and lamb together. Jews had been reading that verse for centuries! However, he heard the word together in a new way, and we have the Seder’s Hillel Sandwich.  He was also not the first person to read about the seven year limitation for debts, but he was the first to fix that seven year limitation to individual debts—as opposed to a rigid time period for all debts, and he thereby made loan money available to people even as the sabbatical year drew close. We are the beneficiaries of all these sprouts in the field of God’s wisdom. 

There are also our own varying sensitivities and insights. As we go through life, we understand things differently based on our experiences. A passage which meant one thing to us twenty or thirty years ago may have a significantly more profound message for us today: we are not the same as we were.

God and the Tradition are also working with the fact that the members of each generation need to learn the lessons of life for themselves. We may try to teach them the wisdom we’ve gained—just like our parents and grandparents tried to teach us, but only some of this accumulated wisdom gets through. Why? It is impossible to understand love or temptation or rage or devotion until you’re actually experiencing it. When they or we are finally in a place to understand the lessons, our Tradition offers them again through the yearly repetition of the Torah’s insights and wisdom. Stated another way, God gives us second or third or fourth chances at finally understanding things through the ongoing communication of Torah. Who knows what lessons await us? Who knows what we shall be able to hear this time around?