This year on Simchat Torah we experienced that wonderful transition, repeated every year, when we conclude the Torah and then start over again with the creation of the world out of chaos and void. While the book of Deuteronomy, set as the Jews prepare to enter the land of Israel, may itself be read as a kind of beginning rather than an ending, it also functions as a tragic denouement for Moses. Moses is, of course, prevented from entering the Promised Land he spent his whole life moving toward, as God tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross there.” This line, as well as the moment we learn that Moses will buried in an anonymous burial place somewhere in the land of Moab, never fails to move me. Deuteronomy may partly be intended to capture the rousing national entry to the land of Israel, but the very end of it is pure tragedy. It is the human story of Moses, the greatest prophet to ever arise in Israel, who nevertheless succumbed to human frailty and human limitations.
To me, part of the simchah (joy) of Simchat Torah is that, human tragedy notwithstanding, we have the opportunity to start again. The first chapter of Genesis always sounds funny in the context of Simchat Torah, partially due to the hoopla surrounding its public reading, but also because of the simplicity of its language and the straightforward relationship between God and the world depicted therein. This comes in stark contrast to the cluttered and complicated human landscape we just left in Deuteronomy. That kind of transition can exist in the realm of religion, and of fiction, though not necessarily in real life. Generally in real life, things get more rather than less complicated. The Jewish liturgical cycle, however, gives us the opportunity to start over each year, though presumably our interpretation of the Torah in the year to come will be infused by our readings of the previous year and of every year before that.
In 2013, the British novelist Kate Atkinson published a terrific novel called Life After Life, a sprawling account of the history of the first half of the twentieth-century centered around the many lives of Ursula Todd. Ursula is a heroine with the peculiar habit of being reborn every time she dies. Sometimes she lives a long and full life, other times a tragically truncated one, but every time her life ends it begins again exactly where it started previously, on a snowy winter night in 1910. As the book goes on, Ursula’s various deaths reflect the complicated nature of the times in which she lives, each one heart-wrenching in a particular way that reflects the horrors of war in the twentieth-century. Yet each time she dies there is that return to the beginning, to the glistening white snow that falls on the night of her birth, and we as readers feel relieved but also vaguely dissatisfied. Even though we know that Ursula will come back to life soon enough, the kind of human sadness unearthed by each of the many different ways in which she dies does not dissipate once she is resurrected. As readers, we experience the wondrous and redemptive possibility of new beginnings, but we are unable to shake the knowledge of what has been and what is yet to come. I thought of this novel when we read the opening verses of Genesis this past Simchat Torah. These verses represent a new beginning but are also inextricable from what we just read in Deuteronomy, and from generations of Jewish experience and interpretation.
In the “Four Quartets,” T.S. Eliot also seeks to address the devastating nature of war in the beginning half of the twentieth-century. In this collection of poems, Eliot offers a profound set of meditations upon time and eternity. There is one passage in particular that I believe reflects upon the way we read and re-read the Bible year after year. Eliot writes:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
Throughout “Four Quartets” Eliot explores different ways to conceptualize the passing of time. Is time linear or is it cyclical? What might it mean to exist outside of time? The model Eliot proposes in the above passage is a kind of fusion of linear and cyclical time. That is, as time passes the world seems to change and grow more complicated, but each new moment also contains within it a “lifetime,” and a lifetime can involve one’s own individual history as well as collective wisdom accumulated over centuries. These “old stones” may or may not always be decipherable to us, but they are nevertheless part of the way in which we experience life and, I would add, the way in which we read the Bible in particular.
Eliot is skeptical of the idea of an isolated spiritual experience that is divorced from one’s past and a larger context. At the same time, even if there really isn’t anything new under the sun, we still need to move forward in pursuit of “a further union, a deeper communion.” He continues:
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
The line “old men ought to be explorers” is a reference to the poem “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This poem depicts Homer’s epic hero Odysseus as an old man who has seen it all. Tennyson’s Odysseus recognizes that, even though he is weakened and burdened by all he has experienced, he nevertheless cannot stop moving forward. This dynamic is similar to what we experience every year when we repeat the annual cycle of Torah readings, and even more broadly, when we structure our lives around a Jewish sacred calendar that is both contained within time and exists outside of it. Eliot and Tennyson seem to imagine this process of moving forward as a profoundly challenging one of fighting against stormy winds and waves. On Simchat Torah, on the other hand, we welcome our endings and our beginnings with dancing and joy.