a tale with two endings
Three thousand years a go, Balaam the prophet described the Children of Israel as ‘a people that dwells alone’. This is a very strange concept, one that cannot be explained in terms of any mythology of the ancient world. And today, in the twentieth century, when you analyse it objectively and scientifically – not from the point of view of faith and feeling – there cannot be any doubt that this is how most of the world see us: a people that dwells alone. The problem is whether this concept denotes a privilege – not an escape from society as a while, but a unique role within it – or whether it is an anomaly, which must be denied and discarded. This is the question of Jewish history. Ambassador Rabbi Yaakov Herzog, Address to Bnei Akiva Conference Jerusalem, January 1970
The reading of Vezot Habracha brings the annual reading of the Five Books of Moses to an end. Unlike the other portions, it is read not on Shabbat, but on the festival of Simchat Torah. A number of customs that have developed around this reading suggest lessons for the way in which we relate, as individuals and as a people, to the text of the Bible as a whole.
• The Bible – a shared legacy: It is the custom that, as this final portion is read, the entire congregation is called up to make a blessing over the Torah. In many synagogues the portion is read over and over to give everyone an opportunity to be called. In another widely-spread custom, based on a medieval German tradition, a special blessing “kol hanearim” invites all the children of the community to stand before the Torah and make the blessings. All these customs are in stark contrast to the approach adopted in many ancient religions, in which knowledge of a sacred text was jealously guarded by a ruling priestly class. The message for the Jewish people, as we begin the annual reading of the Bible once again, is that this is not the exclusive heritage of any group or class, but a shared legacy of the entire people.
• A never-ending cycle: As we finish reading the last section of the Torah, we immediately go back to the beginning of Bereishit and start reading again. In so doing we continue a never-ending cycle of study that has continued for thousands of years. At the same time we remind ourselves that there is no end to understanding. Even if the text remains the same, we the readers have changed and will read it each year with new insights and understanding.
• A tale with two endings: The fact that we carry on reading from the start of Bereishit means that the Torah is in fact a story with two endings. On the one hand, the five books of Moses continue chronologically into the book of Joshua, with the story of the conquest of the land, and on to the history of the judges, kings and prophets of Israel. On the other hand, we return to the beginning and read the story of the Jewish people’s long journey to freedom, peoplehood and independence in their land. These two endings have a resonance for the Jewish people today. On the one hand, living in Israel, we are writing new chapters in the epic saga of Jewish history. But on the other, we are reminded that every generation has also to return to the beginning, to begin its own process of creating a sense of peoplehood and its own journey to the Promised Land.
In others’ words
“Our planet remains torn by conflict. At its heart, this is a conflict about values; a battle of ideas. It is a conflict about whether to respect or to reject the other – a conflict between tolerance and tyranny, between the promise of co-existence and the hopelessness of hate…
“We, the people of Israel, have lived for many years on the frontlines of this conflict. Our nation has felt its fury; our soldiers have fought and died in its battles. An ancient people in the heart of the Middle East – great in history but small in number – we have been a constant target of those that oppose our very existence.”
Address by Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni to the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 2006
On a lighter note
I saw a clever greeting card perfect for the festival of Simchat Torah. There is an open ark filled with scrolls of the Torah, a rabbi is putting the Torah away, and on the bottom is a big sign reminiscent of Blockbuster Video: “Be Kind, Please Rewind.”
Rabbi Michael Gold