The Jewish holiday season in the Hebrew month of Tishrei is a short but intense period ending with the Biblical holiday of Shemini Atzeret (the Eight Day of Assembly). Since there is no Temple service today, its modern incarnation is Simchat Torah, characterized by finishing and beginning again the cycle of Torah reading.
Every year I am struck by the image of two men rolling the scroll from the end all the way to the beginning, in a back-and-forth motion that makes them appear to be rowing a boat. It takes about ten minutes to transfer all of the leather parchment from one side to the other.
My community has a slightly irreverent and humorous approach to worship, so this year, when the man who was about to read from the Torah out loud leaned over and pointed at Bereshit, the first word in Genesis, he took a deep breath and said wearily, “Here we go again.”
I smiled, commiserating with him. Every year we read the same five books, over and over. And we have been reading the Bible from beginning to end since it was given to us at Mount Sinai. Will it ever be enough? And why does this cycle begin and end on Shemini Atzeret following the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles)? What is the connection?
In the Bible, there is a command to read from the Torah aloud once every seven years in a practice known as hakhel. According to the Sages, however, Moses himself instituted that the Jews not go more than three days without reading from the Torah. He reasoned that since the Torah is compared to water, and we cannot survive more than three days without water, we also cannot survive more than three days without the Torah. Just as water keeps a person alive and energized, constant engagement with the Torah keeps us pulsing with spiritual energy and passion.
Originally, the Torah was ready over a period of three and a half years. The 3 ½ year cycle was based upon the division of the Torah into its 175 sections. In exile, the Torah was read in an annual cycle. By the Middle Ages, the annual reading cycle became predominant.
So the current practice of completing the Torah and celebrating at the end of Sukkot is relatively new. If we think about it, however, there are other seemingly more appropriate dates to begin and end the annual Torah cycle. Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) seems logical, or, alternatively, Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) which, according to tradition, commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Why, then, did the rabbis choose Shemini Atzeret, following the holiday of Sukkot, to start the Torah reading cycle? Rabbi Bernie Fox explains that the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is fraught with trepidation. The relationship with God is one of fear and awe. But after Yom Kippur, Sukkot brings a joyful release. We dwell inside the Sukkah (temporary dwelling), representing the clouds of glory, celebrating the intimacy of our relationship with God. This relationship comes to a climax on Shemini Atzeret, when God asks the nation of Israel to stay and celebrate with him for just one more day. The Torah, too, celebrates the relationship between God and Israel. It is, therefore, appropriate to celebrate the Torah on this day.
With the completion of Shemini Atzeret, the celebration of intimacy and relationship with God comes to close. But the cycle of reading from the Torah, which maps out the relationship between man and God, begins anew.
The Torah carries us throughout the year on our journey of spiritual growth and development. And each time we read it, our understanding of God’s words grows deeper.
Receiving the Torah is like receiving a letter directly from a loved one. We read it over and over again and it never gets old.