Simchat Torah: The Knock Upon the Door

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How did it get so late so soon? – Dr. Seuss

Siyum, the Hebrew word for “termination” means so much more than that.  It is a celebration observed when we reach a worthy moment of completion as when we complete the study of a tractate of Talmud or the finishing of the Torah cycle.  There are, of course, other worthy while less weighty moments that are worthy of a pause, a reflection, a celebration before the “journey” is once again picked up and continued.

For the journey, life or study, must be continued.  It goes on.  Just as time continues to wend its way forward with unerring constancy, so too must we go forward.  However, God has shown us the grace to create us not simply as victims of the constant ticking of an objective clock but as protagonists in our lives, not only capable of investing time with meaning but commanded to do so.

The manner of how we reckon time itself is fundamental to our Jewish experience.  Unlike the Gentile world, which bases its calendar on the unerringly constant sun, we measure time by the waxing and waning of the moon, bringing a powerful rhythm to the underlying metronome of time.  Because our days begin at sundown rather than the stroke of midnight, days and hours lengthen or shorten depending on the season.  Time itself lends itself to meaning.

Time as the physicist measures it might be constant but as the Jew measures it, it proves to be wonderfully malleable.  Jewish time is anything but uniform.  The week is a continual crescendo to the Sabbath.  With the Sabbath’s arrival, we celebrate joyously only to reluctantly say farewell at havdalah before we start the cycle again.  The Jewish year is an uneven temporal landscape, where festivals and holidays, solemn observances and fasts alter the meaning and significance of what might otherwise be just another day or season.

We feel this malleability of time most profoundly at a siyum, our wonderful celebration of completion, of a moment in time.  And yet… and yet… we find that we never enjoy unbridled joy when we celebrate a siyum.  I have often wondered at the strange, mixed emotion of the siyum.  There is joy, absolutely, but also something else – an anxiety, a sadness, a sense, perhaps, of depletion.  Why should a moment of such joy and accomplishment be tinged with any kind of negative emotion?  Simply because even in our moments of joy, when time seems to be the repository of such powerful meaning, time is still time.  It cannot be what it is not.  It moves on, relentless.  So, in addition to celebrating our accomplishment we know that we must pick up and continue; we move forward knowing that each “completion” brings a growing awareness that each completion leads to a greater completion, a greater finality.

Just as the constant ticking of the clock is made bearable by our ability to find meaning; the joy of our siyum is diminished by knowing that the weight of time must once again be shouldered as we journey on.

This sense of joy and sadness is most powerfully felt as we celebrate the magnificent siyum of completing – and taking up again – the cycle of Torah readings, when we celebrate Simchat Torah.  Our mixed feelings are best captured in the prayer we pray at each siyum, “hadran halach…”.  We pray that we return.  We pray that we will be able to celebrate this siyum “next time”.  At every Siyum HaShas the hadran halach provokes even greater fear and trembling.  Will we – will I – still be here seven years hence?

At each siyum our only guarantee is what was and what is, not what will be.  However, even our understandable trepidation in facing the future pales against a greater concern as we celebrate Simchat Torah.  Certainly, we cannot help but wonder if we will be present to celebrate in joy next time, if we will be around to rejoice as we read, v’zot haBracha; if we will be given the blessing of learning anew and more deeply the parashiyot.

As the years move on, our voice rise with ever greater intensity, chazak, chazak v’nitchazek.  We pray for strength.  To be strong, strong.  And stronger still so that we may be blessed to celebrate again next time.

As an even greater indication of our desire to be on hand to celebrate next time is that, immediately upon reading the Torah’s last words – l’einei kol Yisrael – we promptly begin at the beginning Breishit bara…. Here we are, God!  Ready and eager to start again, anxious to complete the cycle yet again.

This particular siyum, the completion of the Torah cycle, brings a heightened concern above that of any other siyum and that concern speaks to our fear that, as time moves forward we cannot know what the future will bring not only for us, for me, but for our children and grandchildren.

What will they want to take of all that we have struggled to leave for them?

Will they embrace it, or will they squander it?

One of the most important verses in v’zot haBracha is Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaakov…  What is the Torah to the generations to come?

In his essay, “The Torah is not yerusha – only morasha” Rabbi Yissocher Frand, notes that the verse indicates that Torah is an inheritance (morasha) to Israel but that wherever the word morasha is found it suggests a weakening of the idea of inheritance.

Morasha is, in his words, “…a peculiar word.  It is not easy to translate.  It is significantly different than the word yerusha (inheritance).  The connotation is that one has less ownership in an object that comes to him as a “morasha” than he does in an item that comes to him “yerusha”.

God bequeathed the Land of Israel to the Jews He brought out of Egypt (“And I will give it to you as a morasha.”  Rabbi Frand notes that the Yershalmi, “…points out that the people who were given this promise never made it to the Land of Israel.  Virtually the entire generation who left Egypt died out in the Wilderness.”

How could the Land be given to them as a morasha if they were not there to receive it?  Based on this, the Yerushalmi makes the distinction between marasha and yerusha.  Had the Land been promised to the people as a yerusha there would have been no question of ownership.  However, it was given morasha, suggesting that it will not necessarily be yours.  And, in truth, it never became theirs except to the extent that they gave it to their children.

As the Land, so too the Torah.  It was given morasha.  It is not yerusha.  Just because I have possessed and loved Torah there is no guarantee the same will be true of my children or my grandchildren.  Torah belongs to them only when the person devotes the time and effort to master it.  Then, and only then, does it become theirs.  Torah is not yerusha, a no-strings-attached inheritance.  It is morasha.  It is contingent on the children taking it and embracing it.

In his article, Rabbi Frand shares Chazal’s teaching based on the pasuk, “This Torah will not depart from your mouth of your children or the mouths of your grandchildren forever.”  He writes, “If three generations are committed to learning Torah, then the Torah will never leave that person’s family.”

Sadly, we all know too many people who come from generations of Torah scholars who do not know an aleph from an ayin.  How, we wonder, could such a thing be?  The Chofetz Chaim explained that the Torah is like a guest seeking entry into a host’s home.  Sometimes a guest knocks on one’s door.  If no one opens the door, the guest will not come in.

When Moses concluded his speech, in the moments before he left this world, he spoke to the Jewish nation and said, I am bequeathing an inheritance to you.  Take responsibility for it, all of you together.

Torah is not yerusha, it is not a guaranteed inheritance.  Knowing that, with each Simchat Torah our hearts are filled not only with personal trepidation, Will I be blessed to enjoy another siyum like this? but also with the greater trepidation, will my children and my children’s children be so blessed?  Will they open the door when there is the knock upon the door?