Sunday, October 7, 2012

Closing (and Beginning) the Circle

Sometimes, you are closer to your destination than you might think.

In his wonderful book about the Days of Awe, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew recalls a lesson that he learned from the great Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik.  He notes: “If you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is getting closer and closer.  The calendar year is such a circle.  On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins, and every day is one day farther from the starting point; but every day is also a return, a drawing closer to the completion of the cycle.”

If one thinks of our fall holy day season as a kind of marathon, then Simchat Torah represents the finish line—and it is within sight.  After the preparation of the month of Elul, the introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the harvest festival of Sukkot, we at last arrive at a time of pure and unabashed joy.  We exhale a collective sigh of relief: we have been written and sealed in the Book of Life, the harvest is secure—and now, at last, we can celebrate.

We dance, we sing, we stomp and swirl and carry flags and Torah scrolls.   And amidst all this revelry, we welcome our newest students with a ceremony of consecration.  It is a raucous occasion; we’ve paid our dues and now it is time to party.  In the words of Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, “Simchat Torah celebrates a Torah of pure joy, a Torah without restrictions or sense of burden. . . It is a magical moment when all that exists are God and Torah and ourselves.  We throw ourselves into endless circles of dancing and become time lost.”

The circle is, indeed, the central image of the festival.  The Torah scroll circles back on itself, as we conclude the end of Deuteronmy and begin again with the Creation.
Our circle dances echo that circle of the text itself—and the circles that mark the journeys of our individual and communal lives.

Most marathons follow a circuit route: the finish and the starting lines are the same.  So, too, in so much of life: we end up, essentially, back where we began. 

But what matters is what we see and do along the way—the twenty six miles of the marathon, or whatever the years allotted to us.  “In the beginning” God creates the world.  At Torah’s end, Moses dies.  In between, in both the words and the spaces, life is lived.  And then God creates the world anew.  Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Chag sameach—a joyous end of Sukkot and Simchat Torah to all.

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