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Jewish World Review
Oct. 3, 2007
/ 21 Tishrei, 5768
Simchas Torah's role in guaranteeing a living Judaism
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
The call to fresh thinking is fundamental to securing the eternal message
For hundred and hundreds of years, the Jews have the custom to complete the reading of the Torah scroll in the synagogue on the day of Simchas Torah and, within seconds, start reading it again from its beginning. This custom deserves our special attention; Why the hurry? There is nearly no time to contemplate what one has read last year! Why don't we read a small section and discuss it as part of the synagogue service? What is the point in reading something, which, for lack of time, cannot even be contemplated? Why not take a year off to re-examine what we have just read? What in fact is the meaning of this repetitious reading?
There is a must to re-examine what one has read the year before and this is indeed part of the commandment to study Torah. There is a need to repeat and learn till one fully understands what one has learned. Yet there is a danger involved in doing so. Once a text is studied and repeated in a particular way, it often results in dogmatic reading. It imprisons the mind and blocks new ways to interpret the text. The possibility of finding a chidush, a novel interpretation, in the same text is thereby lost. The call to new understandings and not just repeating what others (or ourselves) have said is essential to genuine Torah learning. Surely only intensive Torah learning can guarantee an authentic new interpretation and will save it for eternity. Without it Judaism will not be able to survive.
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1531-1586), disciple of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the authoritative Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), and of the famous Torah commentator Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1600), write a very unusual text (Parashas Balak):
Concerning the faith in the (contemporary) human being, it is said in (Deuteromony 29:13) "And not with you alone did I establish a covenant, but with those who are here with us and with those who are not here today". Therefore each and everyone of us, our children and grandchildren until the conclusion of all the generations who have entered the covenant, are duty bound to examine the secrets of the Torah and to straighten out our faith concerning it by accepting the Truth from whomever says it. Neither ought we be concerned about the logic of others even if they preceded us preventing our own individual investigation. Much to the contrary. Just as (our forebears) did not wish to indiscriminately accept the Truth from those who preceded them, and that which they did not choose (to accept), they rejected, so it is fitting for us to do... Only on the basis of the gathering of many different opinions will the Truth be tested. Thus it is valuable to us to complete the views (of our predecessors) and to investigate (the meaning of the Torah) in accordance with our own minds understanding. And even if in the course of investigation into the secrets of the Torah through our love for it, we err, it will not be accounted for us even as an unwitting thing because our intent was for the sake of Heaven. But we shall be guilty if we desist from investigating the secrets of our Torah by declaring: The lions have already established supremacy, so let us accept their words as they are... Rather it is proper for us to investigate and analyze in according with our understanding and to write our interpretations for the good of those who come after us, whether they will agree or not
You must struggle to scale the heights and to understand our Torah and do not be dismayed by the names of the great personalities when you find them in disagreement with your belief; you must investigate and choose, because for this purpose were you created, and wisdom was granted you from Above, and this will benefit you...
This great wisdom is often forgotten in certain religious circles and has been detrimental to the future of a living Judaism. Of course there are rules of interpretation of the Halachic foundations of Judaism, yet the call to fresh thinking is fundamental to guarantee the Torah's eternal message.
We believe this is the reason behind the need to read the Torah every year without leaving any time between completing it and starting all over again, without giving the listener time to carefully contemplate its meaning.
The hurry is to forestall the text to settle down in our minds in a particular fashion. It needs to function as a kind of first reading in the sense that it should have the impact of something totally new. Often a first encounter is the most exiting one. It keeps all possibilities open, nothing has yet been fixed or determined and if man would just take notice of that moment he will see things, which a second reading will not allow him any longer. Like seeing something new, man gets suddenly enlightened with an overwhelming insight, which may outdo all his earlier insights. Getting used to a text is often killing the text as familiarity breeds contempt.
Delving into a text is no doubt a very important part of Jewish Tradition and without it, it could not have become what it is today. Still, and in spite of the fact that fast reading often leads to superficiality, it holds the possibility of total novelty.
However, there is another element to all this. Focusing on one or two verses at one time may often result in getting a too narrow view of the narrative or even of the commandments. The sequence of a biblical narrative or the order in which the commandments appear is of crucial importance. One must see the forest beyond the trees. In getting a global overview in which complete stories are being told in one go is a guarantee that the whole grand picture is seen and not just it details. The same is true about the commandments. Like a complicated and nearly indiscoverable structure, the commandments appear in a masterful order in which random does not play a role.
This we believe is the function of the Torah reading in the synagogue. It is not conventional Torah learning but somehow a wake up call. It has a therapeutic function in which man needs to get shocked by the text before he even gets a chance to get used to its deeper contents. And although he has read it the years before, the fact that the whole story appears again a year later and not earlier gives him a chance to forget so as to discover it again as never before. As such it stays fresh and keeps on amazing its reader with its multiple possibilities and its grand image.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. Comment by clicking here.
© 2007, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo