Reading the Beginning of the Torah and a note on Why We do Hakafot (circle dancing with Torah) on Simchat Torah
A Kavannah for Reading the Beginning of the Torah
– B’reishit 1:1-2:3 (Genesis chapter 1 sentence 1 to chapter 2, sentence 3)l
by Rabbi Diane Elliot Simkhat Torah 2015 / 5776
On Simkhat Torah we read the very end of the Torah, in which Moses– our faithful shepherd through so much of the Khumash (The Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. Torah)– dies by God’s kiss and is mourned by the people. And then we roll the scroll back to the very beginning, to the Book of Genesis, B’reishit, which might be translated: “in a beginning,” or “with a beginning.” Not “in the beginning,” but “in a beginning”: just one out of the many possible places our story could begin. What kind of beginning will we have this year? What Torah will unfold for you, for each of us, this year? Will it be a Torah of justice or of injustice? Of love or of fear?
The Sages teach that Torah ends with the letter lamed and begins with the letter bet. Together these spell the world lev – heart or mind. So, they hint, there is some way that the Torah, this amazing, ancient document, holds all the possible stories that a heart or mind could encompass.
On Simkhat Torah, as we dance with the Torah, lifting her, bowing with her, whirling her around, we also whirl and vibrate and bounce ourselves around, shaking loose the remnants of the old stories of our lives that still live within us. And inside the Torah the inked letters, called “black fire” by the mystics, are also dancing, whirling, and gliding upon the “white fire” of the parchment, bubbling up out of the swirl of infinite potential from which all stories, all materiality, all Creation arises and into which all dissolves!
Last year I spoke about the aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, the letter of wholeness, of Oneness, channeling the supernal Light before Creation. Building on the teaching of Rabbi David Ingber, I suggested that it is not into oblivion, but rather into the vast, silent space of possibility that Moses, our reluctant, humble yet powerful, sometimes doubting, always God-connected guide, dies at the end of our story. Moses does not disappear, does not leave us behind, but waits patiently throughout the book of Genesis, witnessing us from within the infinite possibility of the aleph, ready to re-emerge in the book of Exodus/Sh’mot, to once again lead us toward Canaan, to set our steps on the path of freedom, the path of connection with YHVH, the Ground of Being.
But our Torah begins not with an aleph, but with a bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. She begins not with the story of Moses, or even Abraham, but with the story of this Earth, this precious, threatened Earth in which we live. What can we learn from the wisdom of bet?
The Zohar, the great mystical commentary on Torah, teaches that “b’reishit” points not to “the” beginning or even “a” beginning, but to the dual nature of earthly life itself. Bet, the second letter, stands for the number two: B’ reishit. Every beginning to every story, Torah seems to be saying, inevitably births two-ness—duality, polarity, separation—and thus, drama.
As much as we strive for and hope for and seek out Oneness, the nature of life on Earth, b’reishit teaches us, is always woven of seemingly opposing qualities. And the two qualities that the mystics single out as being at the very root of Creation are khesed and gevurah, lovingkindness and judgment. Or you might say, love and awe, light and dark, expanding and condensing, in-breath and out-breath. Or at their most extreme, you might say, good and evil—seemingly at odds, opposites, yet both somehow necessary.
Maybe the real takhlit—the reason—for our whole High Holy Day journey, all the self-examination, the prayers, the singing, the confession, the heart-opening, and soul-cleansing—is to bring us to this very night of Simkhat Torah, where every one of us comes panim el panim, face to face, with the question: how will I live my story, my torah, this year, stretched between the “two-nesses” of this world? Can I bring the “one taste” of the aleph, so present during the High Holy Days, so joyfully celebrated during Sukkot, into the bet of all my varied experiences, the joys and challenges, the ambivalences, of the next 11 months? Can I keep the white spaces in the torah of my life alive, kinetic, so that new stories and life-altering insights continually emerge from the challenges and blessings of the bet?Ya’amdu, ya’amdu, ya’amdu, let all be called to Torah who want help to make this holy transition into the bet of reishit. Ya’amdu all who need support to open to the weaving of both ahavah and yirah, love and awe, grace-fully, into the everyday moments of our lives. Ya’amdu all who aspire, through loving the challenge of bet, to point back again and again to aleph, to the supernal Light of Oneness, shining through all of Creation.
Rabbi Diane Elliot inspires her students to develop a nourishing and deeply felt Jewish practice through meditation, movement, and nuanced interpretations of sacred text. Formerly the spiritual leader of the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley, she now directs Embodying Spirit, En-spiriting Body, the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s two-year movement-based Jewish leadership training. To learn more about her work, visit www.whollypresent.org.
Why Hakafot (circle dancing with the Torah) on Simchat Torah by Rabbi Michael Lerner
The Lubavitchers teach that the reason we dance on Simchat Torah is because the Torah scrolls wish to dance, so we become their feet.” Why do they want to dance? Because each year we are able to approach the Torah with new insights and understandings, to transcend where we have been in the past. For that reason, we say Shehichiyanu not only over the Kiddush but over the Torah itself, because we are about to renew our understanding.
But why do we dance in a circle? Because the circle represents not only the completion and re-beginning of the Torah which we do tonight after the dancing, but also the oneness and unity of all being. We are dancing the deepest truth of our tradition, that all is One, that we are part of that ultimate oneness, and the circle which we joined when we first came to Jewish consciousness will persist long after we are dead and gone, but now we are the circle, we are the current embodiment of the Jewish people, and so we rejoice on Simchat Torah both for the opportunity to recreate the Jewish people in this New Year, but also to have inherited such a rich tradition from which we start and build upon.
That onenees of course, is not just about Jews. We are part of the oneness of all humanity—which is why onSukkot in the ancient Temple our people offered a sacrifice in honor of each of the 70 nations of the world—we at Beyt Tikkun this past Saturday said the prayer naming each of the 190 nations of the world. And as one of the major refugee people of history, we Jews recognize our oneness not only with other nations, but with all the homeless and all the refugees of the world, and our dance is in part in honor of all of them as well, seeing ourselves as one with the powerless and the homeless. But it goes beyond there too, because the circle must include our Planet Earth, our mother which gave birth to all life, and beyond that, the whole universe whose creation story we begin to read this evening. So our mystical vision includes ourselves as part of the Unity of All Being, and we dance that out in celebration, but also in awe, awe of the miraculous nature of all that Is, the miracle that there is anything at all, and that what Is has evolved as far as it has, even though we know that our task as Jews is to take tne next steps toward the evolution of the consciousness of the universe through participation in tikkun olam, the healing and repair of all that is. So we join in the circle of dancing filled with joy, awe, and celebration, transcending our own egos and connecting to the way we are part of the circle of life.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org, co-chair with Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation