Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2002 / 21 Tishrei, 5763

Simchas Torah: The endless beginning

By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo -- Jewish learning is a tradition of constant beginnings without any end in sight. At the end of Succos - Tabernacles -- Jews the world over will complete the public reading of the Torah in their synagogues and immediately start the cycle anew.

This is a most remarkable tradition that takes place on the festival of Simchas Torah. Instead of being satisfied with this latest reading, they conclude that they really did not read it well enough and that there is a need to read it once more. When one considers that this process of re-reading has already gone on for thousands of years and that there are no indications it will end in the future, one wonders when Jews will ever complete their reading of the Torah.

They won't. The message is clear: When it comes to the learning of Torah there are only perpetual beginners.

While the Torah's text may have a beginning, it has no end. Its divinity is rooted in the world of eternity and, consequently, one cannot do anything other than embark on its beginning without any hope of finishing it. New layers of meaning will constantly emerge, new colors will appear and an ongoing revelation will manifest itself.

But it is not only the study of the Jewish Bible that is never ending. It is also true of all Jewish sacred texts.

When ending a tractate of the Mishna or the Talmud, Jews gather for a festive celebration --- but while doing so, the "completer" reads aloud a text that reminds the assembled that it is time to restart the process. This is called the "hadran alach" ("we will return to you") prayer. It states: "May we return to you, tractate so and so, because we know we have not even started to understand you." The celebration, called a "siyum" is therefore not so much about finishing the last tractate but about the knowledge that it will be studied again. Finishing gives reason for thankfulness, having the opportunity to start again is an excitement and requires an inaugural party.

This process stands in sharp contrast with modern times and its secular intellectual goals. When studying books and texts, the main question in the minds of the students is when they will finish them. The attitude is one which reveals a preoccupation with getting matters over with, completion.

Not so Judaism. It protests against the culture of the "need to end." It runs against the current because it knows that completing a sacred text is only the beginning. A new encounter will be necessary, because the last time we did not even start. True, not every text is open to such an approach. Some texts do not hold the potential to start again. One reading has made them old and outdated.

But if a Torah scholar considers himself to have finished, he is literally at an intellectual dead end and has not understood anything of the Torah. Not even its beginning, because there is no beginning without the knowledge that there is no end.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo