In this Simchat Torah sermon, I reflect on the historical and theological significance of Torah. I consider both Scripture as well as physical scriptures and what meaning they carry in our lives.
October 1, 2010
Simchat Torah 5771
Temple Beth Israel, Steubenville, OH
The Joy of Torah: Celebrating our Tree of Life
My wife and I are in the midst of a crisis. At least, that’s what we jokingly call the situation in our apartment: A crisis of books. Since we moved to New York in 2009 and combined our healthy book collections, we’ve been pressed for space. We’ve squeezed bookshelves into every nook and cranny of our small Manhattan apartment: There are books higher than Jessica can reach, books under the TV, books in the bedroom, books in the front hallway, books sitting sideways on four full-sized bookshelves, and books languishing in two crates that we have to store in the closet. Neither of us was willing to sell or give away any books during our undergraduate years, and now that we’re in graduate school, the volumes continue to mount. We’re open to suggestions if anyone knows a good interior decorator or carpenter who can provide some creative solutions.
In the end, I recognize that I have to take responsibility for much of the crisis. For, while most of our shelves store books unceremoniously heaped one on top of the other, I’ve claimed four full shelves to hold our collection of bibles, each volume proudly standing up as a book on a bookshelf should be. I have two Reform Torah commentaries given to me by my school, and Jessica contributed a second copy of the Torah Women’s Commentary that’s still in its plastic cover. We used to own two Oxford Annotated Bibles from our undergraduate days, but we managed to sell the paperback copy; however, we still have three copies of the Jewish Publication Society Tanach. We have eight volumes that were given as personal gifts, three more presented on the occasions of confirmation or graduation, four that were purchased for academic reasons, and another four that were inherited from closing libraries. And to top it all off, I have purchased or received five sets of bible commentaries that total a full twenty-nine separate volumes. So I admit it – I’m to blame for the book crisis.
Now, one might rightly ask two questions: First, why don’t I stack them sideways like the rest of the books in our collection so that we can bring some volumes out of the closet? And second: Why do I need to have so many bibles to begin with – don’t they all say basically the same thing? The answer to the first question is an old custom, found in multiple religious traditions, of not stacking any books on top of a bible. My first introduction to this practice was at a meeting of the Children of Abraham Institute at the University of Virginia, which was an interfaith dialogue group on campus. Asma, one of the Muslim participants, revealed one day that she never puts another book on top of the Koran, and a Protestant participant shared that he also followed that behavior with respect to the bible. In the Jewish tradition, I knew of the custom not to put a prayerbook or bible on the floor, but I hadn’t heard about this particular practice. But in the medieval work called Sefer Hasidim, this exact tradition is spelled out. This guide goes so far as to specify the hierarchy of books that can be stacked on one another, with a sefer Torah, like the ones we have in our ark, being at the top of the pyramid. To me, going out of my way to allow bibles to stand on their own helps me demonstrate the respect I have for the teachings that are found within them.
The second question is very much related to the first: Why should I need so many bibles? Why have my religious studies classes required them? Why have congregations and schools found them to be important gifts? Why do I find it imperative to own so many physical bible commentaries while I’m content to study Talmud online? Today, on Simchat Torah, we celebrate the answer to that question.
I’m sure that I don’t need to dwell on how important the Torah is to traditional Judaism. The bible itself sees the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai as the pivotal event of the entire history of the People of Israel. The Talmud, which is the basis for almost every Jewish law imaginable, is wholly obsessed with trying to unwrap the Torah and apply its meaning in a practical sense. The Zohar, basis for kabbalistic Judaism for five hundred years, seeks to penetrate the mystical veil surrounding the Torah and to meditate on its mysteries for spiritual transcendence. Unceasingly for over three thousand years, our people have lived lives centered on Torah; as our prayerbook declares, “It is our life and the length of our days” (Gates of Prayer 230).
While all this may be clear and true, we may yet ask: How does the Torah relate to my life today? In the 21st century, we know so much more than ever before about the history of the Torah, yet this expanded knowledge can serve to reduce the sense of enchantment that Jews have felt toward their holy Scripture for so many centuries. For example, the Torah itself claims that it was given after the exodus from Egyptian slavery to Moses on Mount Sinai, and according to the rabbis’ calculation, that event happened in the Jewish year 2448, or the year 1313 before the Common Era. But modern scholarship suggests that there was no slavery, no exodus, and no Sinai, that the earliest stories of the Torah—which are not necessarily those closest to the beginning—coalesced into a Scripture around the year 1000 BCE, or around the time of the legendary kingdom of David. While the Torah itself was probably fairly stable within about four hundred years, it would take another four centuries for the rest of the bible to coalesce into more or less the form we have today. Scholars have advanced the theory that four primary authors contributed to the writing of the Torah, though certainly some stories (such as the Creation and Flood narratives) have lived in the imaginations of our people for longer than history can remember. As we read biblical history with modern eyes, we may become disenchanted with the magic and mystery that our ancestors saw when they looked at this central text.
However, I believe that more important than the history is the undying passion that Jews have felt toward our Torah. Ever since the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, we have read publicly from the Torah, making this book central to our lived faith. Ezra established Mondays and Thursdays—market days in the ancient world—as days for proclaiming words of Torah, and those two days remain the traditional times to read parts of the Torah today. As well, the practice of reading the Torah weekly on Shabbat is a longstanding ritual in our heritage. Palestinian Jews in the first centuries of the Common Era had about three times as many Torah portions as we do now, and therefore, it would take them over three years to finish reading through the entire book. While we celebrate Simchat Torah and the conclusion of another cycle of reading every year, imagine the excitement of returning to Genesis 180 weeks after having last read it! We Jews have been reading and studying Torah for a long, long time, and tonight’s celebration is the latest in a very long line.
So the question we ask ourselves tonight is: What does this celebration mean to us today, sitting in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel? Perhaps some of us are eager to take our place in such a longstanding and proud tradition. Perhaps others are drawn to learn more about the myriad stories contained in this rich treasury. And perhaps we recognize that the celebration of Torah is really the celebration of all things Jewish. For the Torah is the seed of Jewish law, the seed of Jewish peoplehood, and the seed of Jewish ethics, mysticism, and politics. We dance and sing with the Torah, and we know that its abiding values will be with us when we despair. Truly, there is nothing Jewish that does not trace back to Torah, and it is this binding force that we celebrate tonight.
For Torah is not just equal to the words of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Torah, which translates into English as Instruction, is the symbol for all things of value in our lives. All we hold dear can be found in the words of Torah, and Rabbi Ben Bag Bag teaches us: “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Truly, Torah is a Tree of Life. Its roots go deep, farther than we can see, rooting it immovably in our heritage. As it grows in our lives, we may take nourishment from the fruit it provides, tasting its sweet lessons and planting seeds of education in the hearts of others. We remind ourselves that all its paths are peace, and we dedicate our lives to living out the values of this most central symbol. Truly, we delight in Simchat Torah, grateful for such a transcendent gift.
And when you put it that way, it makes a lot more sense why there are so many bibles resting on the bookshelves of my apartment. More than anything else, the Torah symbolizes the sweetness of learning, the depth of compassion, and the exaltation of spirit inherent in our rich religious tradition. May our Simchat Torah celebration this year remind us of the Torah’s beauty and the vital spirit it breathes into our Jewish lives.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”