Simchat Torah: The Unapproachable Text

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

zondag 30 september 2018

Since Simchat Torah is the day on which we celebrate the Torah and its divinity, greatness, and superiority, it is quite perplexing that there is no special mitzvah commanding the Jewish people to study Torah more deeply and more extensively on this festival than on any other day. In fact, not much studying can be done since much of the day is taken up with dancing and singing, and even the reading of the Torah is kept to a minimum. We read the last portion of the Torah (V'zot Habracha), which concludes with Moshe's death, and the first 34 verses of Sefer Bereishit (Genesis) concerning the seven days of Creation.

Even more remarkable is the unapproachability of the text. While dancing with the Torah scrolls, they are carefully covered with velvet mantels and not once is the actual text shown to the worshippers and dancers in the synagogue. Seemingly, we are not allowed to see what we celebrate!

Even when we actually read from the Torah – not only on this day, but throughout the year – the text is immediately covered once the reading of one section has come to an end. There is a constant attempt to hide the text.

This is also demonstrated by the fact that once a Torah portion has been read, it disappears again into the scroll, while another one, which was hidden until then, is revealed for a short while so as to be read, only to quickly disappear again when the reading is done.

What is the meaning behind all this?

It could not be clearer. Now that we start to read the Torah all over again, we must once again be reminded of its absolute holiness, rendering it inaccessible and unapproachable.

Its holiness is of such superiority that we need to receive a stern warning that we are once again undertaking the impossible. There is no way to fathom this text; all we can do is read its outer layer but never "das Ding an sich" (the "thing-in-itself"), to use Immanuel Kant's famous concept.

The book will forever remain a nearly closed work. Only for a moment can one look into its text without getting burned. Gazing at the Torah too much, or for too long, will leave the reader paralyzed. Only in printed form, in a book, and with the help of commentaries can one approach the text.

It is solely through these commentaries that the text can be brought down to the level of mortals. Only when the Torah is partially stripped of its heavenly fire and made "user friendly" is there a slight chance that one may understand some of its contents.

This is also the reason why Jews only start reading the Torah but never finish it. For thousands of years, on the day of Simchat Torah we begin all over again. Even the greatest Torah scholars once again come to the conclusion that they need to reread it, since they failed bitterly the previous year.

After all, we only start reading the first words and already we get stuck, unable to understand the actual meaning; and we can never really get beyond that place.

While in the non-Jewish world the whole point is to finish a book, in Judaism we are all just perpetual beginners.

This explains why, unlike the week of Sukkot in which we hold our lulavim and circle around a Sefer Torah that has been placed on the bimah/tevah (a raised platform from which the Torah is read in a synagogue), on Simchat Torah we carry the Torah scrolls and circle around an empty bimah/tevah. This time it is not the Torah that stands at the center of our lives, but the Great and Invisible God Who is encircled.

This, we believe, is another serious warning to all those who see the Torah as a literary work that can be studied like Shakespeare's Hamlet, like a chapter out of humanity's great cultural heritage, or as a piece of the Israelites' early history.

The moment it is disconnected from God, it loses its source of spirituality and its text will slowly die, like a human succumbing to a lack of oxygen. While studying, even only its outer layers, the student needs to be constantly reminded that this text is Divine and can therefore only be approached in awe and holiness. The student must hear the voice of God behind the text. It is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, "holiness in words."

Though its words seem plain and its style transparent, obscure meanings and unimagined intimations are hidden in its simple words. Just as God is untouchable, so is His text. While studying the text, the students must have God standing at the center of their lives.

This is why on Simchat Torah we take the Torah scrolls and circle around the empty space on the bimah/tevah. Just as a spinning cylinder pulls all its elements to its very center, so the Torah must be drawn more and more to its center: God. Only when it becomes clear that God is the Author behind the words can it be understood and even then only partially.

Now that we are going to once again start reading the Torah on Simchat Torah, we can approach it only with awe and realize that even with all our knowledge, the Torah is hidden behind a mantel of divinity.

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