What is life all about?
One answer to that question is that life is all about beginnings and endings. Birth and death, marriage and divorce, hopeful anticipation and inglorious defeat.
Most commonly, beginnings are bright. Even the pessimists among us cherish new beginnings and find promise in them. A new leaf is exciting, encouraging, and full of possibilities.
Yet, beginnings have downsides, too. They are often fraught with the handicap of inexperience and sometimes contain moments of anxiety and even foreboding.
Our sages recognized this well when they cautioned us, “Kol hatchalot kashot – All beginnings are difficult!”
Endings, on the other hand, are not always negative. Sometimes it is good to close the book on an unfortunate set of circumstances and to exclaim, as we do on Rosh Hashanah Eve, “Let the past year and its curses be gone!”
Indeed, there are endings which are truly happy occasions, which represent the successful conclusions of long processes of efficient effort and hard work. Those endings celebrate achievement and accomplishment.
This week’s Torah readings include two lengthy parshiyot, Vayakhel and Pikudei, and the supplemental reading of Parshat HaChodesh. These readings exemplify celebratory endings and hopeful new beginnings.
Vayakhel and Pikudei are twin portions, replete with technical details. They describe the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle, a significant accomplishment made even more significant because it was a process in which every Jew participated.
Additionally, with these readings, we conclude our study of the Book of Exodus, in its own right an achievement worthy of celebration. What can be a more joyous ending than a siyum, the completion of one of the most basic and essential books of the Bible?
One of the most powerful educational tools in our tradition is the festive party known as the siyum. Even the very young Jewish student knows that when he or she finishes a chapter or a book of Torah, at least a modest party will mark the occasion. The cupcakes, or ice cream, or pizza of the siyum is the perfect reinforcement of the achievements of learning. Adults, too, celebrate siyumim and find them rewarding markers of adult learning. The grand siyum of the entire Talmud in which those who study Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud each day, has in our time become an event which fills large stadiums and in which tens of thousands participate.
We have, then, two happy endings this week: The completion of the first Jewish house of worship, so long ago in our history. And the completion, in which we all will participate this Shabbat, of a formidable section of our Torah.
This Shabbat is special too because it heralds a new beginning in the supplemental Torah portion, Parshat HaChodesh (Exodus 12:1-20), in which we hear the Almighty proclaim the upcoming month of Nissan (which begins next week on Tuesday, March 16) as the beginning of all the months on our calendar. A beginning of beginnings.
It is no coincidence that, although we call this month Nissan, it carries but one name in the Torah, Chodesh Ha’Aviv, the month of spring. For springtime is the ultimate beginning, nature’s herald of newness and hope. No wonder, then, that spring was the season chosen by God for the Exodus long ago, and for the festival of Passover, which now approaches.
Every one of us endures numerous endings and beginnings in our lives. As we welcome a new month this Shabbat, it is profoundly appropriate that we reflect on those life events, attempt to transcend the challenges of those which were difficult, and celebrate those which are worthy of celebration.
This is a Sabbath of beginnings and endings for us all. Endings of siyum, accomplishment, and beginnings symbolized by the blossoms of spring signaling life and potential renewal.
What a wonderful, complex Shabbat this is!