The Story Doesn’t Change, But We Do Sh’mini Atzeret – Simchat Torah, Holidays Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12, Genesis 1:1–2:3
During Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, our readings address both endings and beginnings.
We first say goodbye to Moses. Our tradition teaches that because of a prior mistake, Moses is unable to enter the Promised Land:
“Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Eternal showed him the whole land… And the Eternal said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.'”
(Deuteronomy 33:1, 4)
Although Moses is unable to enter Israel, God allows him to view the promised land from afar. In our midrashic tradition, we learn that Moses was also able to preview the entire history of the Jewish people:
“The Holy One, blessed be God, showed Moses all that had been and all that was going to be. God showed him Samson arising from Dan, and Barak ben Avinoam [arising] from Naphtali. So also it was for every generation with its expounders, every generation with its judges, every generation with its leaders, every generation with its sages, every generation with its sinners, every generation with its righteous.”
(Bamidbar Rabbah 23:5)
What a beautiful sentiment! Moses, our greatest leader and teacher, would not be able to participate in the next phase of Jewish history, so God provided him with a gift – a vision of the good and the bad, the failings and the successes, and the highs and the lows of the Jewish people.
On the other hand, how deeply troubling that Moses knew all that would befall the Jewish people. If these events were already foretold, what does that say about free choice? If history has already been written, why attempt to make this world a place of wholeness and peace?
Each year, we read the same portions that we read the previous year (and the year prior to that). As a community, we never move on to Joshua, Judges, or Kings. After Deuteronomy is complete, we once again return to Genesis. Like Moses, we never enter the promised land.
The creation story is one that many of us know well.
“When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos and unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light!” – and there was light.”
The stories that we’ll read in the year ahead are not new to us. If we already know what will befall the Jewish people, why bother reading these words again? If we already know the outcome, how can we make meaning from its words?
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev teaches in “Kedushat HaLevi, Bereshit 3” that the word ” bereshit” (in the beginning) can be divided into two words: bet reshit (“two beginnings”). Rabbi Yitzhak teaches that God provides us with two separate creations. One creation is our bounty, the gifts God gave to us like life, wisdom, and health. The other creation is what we create by using these gifts, through our words and our actions.
Rabbi Yitzhak reminds us that our story is not foretold. Although Moses was given a glimpse of the future, he didn’t know all the twists and turns of what would truly befall our people. There is a story, but each one of us is in that story. We each have the capacity to use our gifts to change our world, moving it toward a better place.
So, too, when we read the words of the Torah. The words of the Torah haven’t changed in millennia, but we have changed. Our perspective is different since last year. Our lived experience changes, as does our outlook, our understanding, and our connection to the text.
As we begin a new year of reading Torah, may we recognize the many gifts that we each possess. Nothing is foretold; we have the capacity to change this world for the better. May we use our lived experience to make new meanings and gather new understandings from our sacred Torah.