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TCS Bulletin - The ending of Torah?

As a child when I was learning to play the guitar (something I never really accomplished) one of the songs that I could play was ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’. This song made famous by the movie The Thomas Crown Affair is a beautiful piece of music (when I’m not playing it) with great lyrics. The song begins: ‘Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel. Never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning reel’.

I sometimes wonder if the composers were thinking about the Torah when they wrote this song. On the festival of Simchat Torah we conclude our Torah reading cycle, reading those final verses about the death of Moses. And then moments later we begin our Torah reading cycle, with the words Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et haaretz – In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.

Simchat Torah is simultaneously a festival of endings and beginnings. The move from the end of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) immediately to the beginning of the book of Bereishit (Genesis) ensures that we are always in the midst of reading Torah. Our reading of the Torah never ends; as a community, we are always somewhere in the middle of our people’s story, in that ever spinning reel (or scroll).

What is striking in the midst of this is the way that our Torah ends. With the final verses of Devarim we stand on the brink of the Promised Land. Moses climbs a mountain and can literally see across the Land of Israel. Our people are poised to finally conclude that journey away from Egypt and through the wilderness. And then Moses dies, we mourn for thirty days, Joshua becomes the new leader, and we turn back to the very beginning and God’s creation of the world.

We know that the story continues in the Book of Joshua with the full account of our people’s conquest of the land. But with our return to the beginning at Simchat Torah and in terms of the text itself we never get there, the story ends with our people outside of the Promised Land, the journey incomplete. It would be like Dorothy never getting back to Kansas, Ilsa not getting on the plane with Victor, or ET never going home and the movie ending. But that is where the Torah ends.

For us, on a deeper level, there is something so powerful about the fact that we never reach to the Promised Land. Torah ends with us still in the wilderness, still waiting to conclude our journey, still yearning for the land that lies ahead.

For thousands of years this yearning was real for a Jewish people living in exile and longing to return to the Land of Israel. I am sure that they drew comfort from the fact that Moses and the Israelites who left Egypt never got to the Promised Land. For them the Torah spoke to their personal experiences.

For us, with a Jewish State reborn, we have that option of completing this journey, which was just a dream for previous generations. But maybe for us the Promised Land is not so much a geographic destination as a spiritual aspiration. We hope and pray for a world where there is justice, a world where all are treated equally, a world where everyone is at peace. And for this Promised Land we remain on that journey, yearning to make it a reality.

We cannot reach the Promised Land, but we are always on a journey towards it. We may (and almost certainly will) end up like Moses and that generation of Israelites who were unable to get there, but nonetheless they never gave up hope, they never stopped moving forward. The Torah is incomplete, and it therefore calls to us to help write those final verses, and to make the Promised Land a reality. 

On Simchat Torah as we end our story, we will have two options of where to go. In the Torah cycle we will return to the very beginning of the story and God’s creation of the world, in the Haftarah reading we will move forward with the Book of Joshua. But for us, we can add a third option, we can continue the work of not just reaching the Promised Land, but of making the world into the Promised Land, creating a world which is finally worthy of this honored title. 

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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