Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Simchas Torah: Gaining inspiration from our children

By Rabbi Naftali Brawer -- I HATE driving my kids to school. Don't get me wrong, I love them dearly; it is just that I can't stand the endless traffic jam that stretches from our home all the way to their school.

Yet, it is not only the traffic that bothers me, it is that I am forced to play their favorite cassettes over and over again.

When I reach breaking-point and switch to the news, they get upset. When I try to explain I need variety and find it grating to listen to the same stuff every day, a cry erupts from the back seat: "But you listen to the same news every day." When I, in turn, explain that news is called "news" precisely because it is not the same every day, I am met with three blank stares in the rear-view mirror. What can I say? It is an ongoing struggle that will continue until they themselves are old enough to get bored listening to the same music every day.

Why are children content to listen to the same song, read the same book or play the same game over and over again, without losing interest? And why do we adults lose interest so rapidly?

I think it is because children have not lost their sense of wonder at a new and thrilling world. Every experience is worth repeating, for each time the child is likely to find a new dimension. Adults, on the other hand, have lost their sense of wonder. Having experienced something once or twice, we itch to move on.

Children see life in cyclical terms. They are not trying to get anywhere in a hurry and can appreciate the same experience multiple times. Adults, on the other hand, see life in linear terms, where the goal is to keep moving down the line, from one novelty to the next.

But in our restless attempts to move on, we fail to appreciate the depth of any given experience. I recently heard a couple tell me that they were "doing" the Orient this summer. Having "done" the Orient in three weeks, they will presumably be off to another region of the globe next summer. If they are lucky, they might even be able to "do" the whole world in their lifetime. And after that, the world's no longer the limit: an American businessman has paid a reported $10 million to go into outer space.

This contrast between adults and children is particularly discernible during the festival season. As a child, I used to get so excited before a Jewish holiday that I couldn't sleep the night before. Although I had heard the shofar, sat in the succah, and lit the menorah the previous year, each time it came around again it felt as if I was experiencing these traditions for the first time. Today I also get excited, but not in the same way. In fact, what stimulates my excitement today are the memories of my childhood celebration.

We adults must learn to recapture that sense of excitement, particularly in our spiritual lives. Practicing the same mitzvah or studying a passage of Torah over and over again can and should bring with it an enhanced and deeper understanding than was previously not possible.

I am reminded of the story in which a wealthy, but ignorant, businessman set out to find a scholarly husband for his only daughter. After visiting dozens of yeshivot, he settled on a young man reputed to be the most brilliant Talmudic scholar in all of Russia. The businessman set up the couple in his lavish home, promising to provide them with all they needed so long as the young man continued his studies.

True to his word, the young man closeted himself in his study for 18 hours a day. One day, the father-in-law happened to walk into the study, whereupon he noticed that the budding scholar was poring over the Talmudic tractate Berachos. Seized with rage, he dragged the young man before the village rabbi and cried: "Rabbi, I have been deceived, I thought I was getting a scholar and here he is, learning tractate Berachos."

"What is wrong with that tractate?" asked the rabbi. "My 10-year-old Berel just began learning Talmud at the cheder," the businessman replied, "and he studies tractate Berachos."

That one can approach a passage of Talmud on many different levels was beyond the poor man's comprehension. His simple but erroneous logic was that if Berachot is taught in cheder, then surely a great scholar must by now have moved on to another tractate.

The festival of Simchas Torah teaches us to slow down and appreciate the cyclical nature of life. It is on this festival that we celebrate not just the completion of the reading of the Torah, but the beginning of a new cycle as well.

One of the festival customs is that directly after completing the reading of the last verse of the Torah, we begin reading the first verse in the new cycle. We do not wait until the following Shabbes, but rather begin on Simchas Torah itself.

Although we have read the story of Genesis many times before, we treat it as if we are hearing it for the first time. This symbolizes the cyclical nature of Judaism, in which movement is not necessarily achieved by going further but rather by repeating the same patterns on a deeper level. Jewish life is rather like a spiral.

Though superficially the pattern is repeated, no two cycles are the same, as each plays itself out on another level.

The message of Simchas Torah is to find the novelty in the familiar.

So this year, when Genesis is read for the umpteenth time, will you hear a familiar story or something novel, exciting and fresh? It depends on how carefully you listen.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer leads the Northwood Synagogue in London. Comment by clicking here .


© 2001, Rabbi Naftali Brawer This article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle.