Kavannah for Reading the End and the Beginning of Torah

Introduction: As we approach the final days of this High Holy Day cycle, I wanted to share with you the drash I offered several years ago on Simkhat Torah at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont California. This is the kavannah for the Torah reading that includes the final verses of the book of Deuteronomy and the first verse of the book of Genesis—the end and the beginning of Torah.

In our community, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn has for many years given a tour de force leyning of the final verses of the book of Deuteronomy, segueing in a single breath into the first verse of Genesis. She includes in her leyning all the different tropes (melodies) that are used to chant Torah and haftarah throughout the year, virtuosically shifting from one to another, verse by verse, musically teaching us how the ending contains the beginning and everything in between.

This is a telling moment in our ritual year, signaling the cyclical nature of spiritual consciousness. My drash also speaks of endings contained in beginnings, beginnings in endings, and perhaps offers some hope for this moment in time, when so much seems to be lost.

Kavannah for Reading the End and the Beginning of Torah
Rabbi Diane Elliot
Simkhat Torah, 5775

V’zot ha-brakhah, and this is the blessing…” We are about to lose Moses, Moshe, the quintessential figure who has guided us through so much of our Torah-year. Reluctant leader, radiant communer with the Divine, narrator and central figure of so much of our Torah story, Moses ascends to the heights, is held deep in the heart of G~d, touched by the Divine voice, the Divine hand, then shuttles back to earth to care for and contain and cajole an errant, fearful, often confused people, sprung unripe into freedom, struggling to understand their place in the world and to shoulder the responsibilities and unfurl the joys of serving the Holy.

That people is us; we surely are that people, as much as the Israelites ever were, needing guidance, needing wisdom, needing at times to have our hands held or some sense shaken into us. We’ve moved through the Days of Awe, stood before the seat of judgment, hoping to exchange it for the seat of mercy. We’ve prayed to peel back the husks, to reveal a clearer, more congruent version of our lives. We’ve sought to unknot the fisted places in our hearts, and we’ve sat in our rickety, impermanent sukkah shelters, leafy boughs above our heads, pinpoints of stars above the boughs, the sweet smell of autumn harvest—pri etz hadar, beautiful, fragrant fruits—in our nostrils, feeling a bit more at peace with our humanness, our frailty, our less than perfect world.

And now here we are, dancing with the Torah, Moshe’s chef-d’oeuvre, whirling in joy, suffused with a love we can hardly contain or name—knowing, all the while, that we’re about to lose Moshe himself.

Doesn’t it seem strange, sad, oddly unsatisfying that at the end of his Torah, Moshe just disappears, like a magician in a puff of smoke? Vanishes between Shabbats, when no one is looking, when we’re all caught up in joyful dancing and release, with no special Shabbat dedicated to the mourning his passing? Maybe it’s just too much in this z’man simkhateynu, the harvest season of our joy, to face the loss of the greatest wisdom figure within our sacred mythology, this humble companion and fierce guide who walks us through so many parshiot. Or maybe it’s hard, so soon after Yom Kippur, to be reminded of the end we humans all must face, cut off at what must always seem midstream, just short of our promised lands.

But perhaps there’s a deeper wisdom here, a profound wisdom about the cyclic nature of life on earth and our humanity, the circlings, the hakafot that connect beginnings to endings and ends to beginnings. Moshe has lived 120, twice 60 years, double samekhSamekh, the Hebrew letter that has a value of 60, is a symbol of wholeness, of completion—a simple round circle, closed, complete, empty, the end present in the beginning, the beginning implicate in the end. One circle of Moshe’s life is lived in unconscious privilege, in palatial insulation in Mitzrayim, Egypt.  A second circle—his mid-life career transition, you might say—is spurred by a sudden awakening to the plight of his enslaved people, and thrusts him into harsh truths of wilderness and human nature, as he struggles through wars, disbelief, cynicism, hunger, and fear to guide an unknowing multitude into the Unknown—protected, guided only by the Invisible Nameless…. two distinct yet interdependent samekh’s, two cycles of fullness, emptiness, completion.

Maybe this is what all our dancing is about—not to deny loss and death, but to joyfully embrace the whole cycle of living and dying, the beginnings in the endings, the endings in beginnings. Rabbi David Ingber has taught that the Torah’s beginning with a Bet, the second letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, points to a missing, mysterious Aleph, of which we can know nothing. This silent Aleph precedes the Bet of B’reishit and is the ground of Creation, and it is into this Aleph that Moses, kissed by G~d, sinks, disappears—not into nothingness, but into the deep, high, wide, mysterious, unknowable Aleph from which the whole story, the whole cosmos springs. There in the Garden, the snake, the first human beings, the Tree, the Flood, the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, this whole world of Ever-Arising Beingness, is Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses our Teacher, whispering, shouting, laughing, crying, teaching—anticipating his own re-birth.

In the beginning, writes the poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo,

where I was touched by G~d,

before my tongue had word,

before my mind had thought,

there, in the fire I still carry,

the mind and heart are one.