By Dr. Gil Graff
The fall sequence of Jewish holidays closes with simchat torah, marking the end of a Torah study cycle and starting the cycle anew. The first chapter of Genesis, read on the morning of simchat torah, presents images of creation, culminating in the appearance of humankind. The chapter concludes with the words “yom ha-shishi,” the sixth day.
Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105), in his commentary on the Torah, notes that “the sixth day” alludes to another sixth day – the sixth of the Hebrew month of sivan – a date associated with the people Israel standing at Mt. Sinai. The experience of Torah is, Rashi suggests, linked to the creation of the world. Put otherwise, what people will make of the world – how they will direct their lives – is no less important than the very existence of the world. In fact, the Talmud records the view of a noted teacher (bar kappara) that “the deeds of the righteous are greater than the creation of heaven and earth” (ketubot 5a).
We live at a time of remarkable achievement in the realms of science and technology. An ever-expanding universe of knowledge deepens our understanding of the cosmos. Yet, we are challenged to bring the wisdom of the sixth of sivan (torah) to bear on our mastery of the world.
On simchat torah, Jews around the world read the closing portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final message to the people Israel. The last words of the Torah scroll are “le-einei kol yisrael,” before the eyes of all Israel. The wisdom of Torah, broadly encompassing the Five Books of Moses and the teachings and experiences that have shaped Jewish life over millennia, is to be accessible to successive generations, across time and place.
As on each occasion that Torah is read in the synagogue, the scrolls will, on simchat torah, be returned to the ark with the following descriptive pronouncement: “it is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and those who support it are happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” Fittingly, these words – starting “etz chaim hee” – are typically sung. The greatest joy is a life of meaning.
Simchat torah celebrates the significance of Torah. It reminds us that infusing existence with meaning – the ultimate message and enduring challenge of “the sixth day” – is a life-long pursuit. Jewish education is the greatest gift we can provide our children …… and ourselves.
Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.