Beginnings, Endings & Simchat Torah

Everything has a beginning and an end. Including Simchat Torah, although not in that order.

The festival of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), which falls this year on October 1st [October 2nd for traditional Jews outside Israel], marks the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings.  It also marks the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings.

After a year of reading approximately one portion per week out of 54 total, on Simchat Torah we read the last portion in the Torah scroll, and then immediately begin again with the first, effectively creating a cycle of Torah readings that has no actual end.

This Simchat Torah tradition is a wonderful reminder that endings very often create new beginnings, with some endings even being new beginnings by definition. An obvious example of this is graduation ceremonies.  They are certainly viewed by participants as the end of an era in their lives – high school, college, or graduate school. But they are called commencement exercises for a reason. Commencement. The very word means Beginning.  And of course, it is the beginning of the next phase of each graduate’s life.

As we read the end of the Torah, we find ourselves facing multiple endings:  First, we reach the end of the Torah scroll itself. Second, we reach the end of the Israelites’ search for the Promised Land, as their years of wandering in the desert come to a close.  And finally, we reach the end of the life of Moses, as Moses dies in the desert without actually stepping foot in the Promised Land he spent his life seeking.

But this is by no means the end of the story.  Before he dies, Moses ensures continuity as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, by passing on his wisdom and leadership of the Israelites to Joshua: “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  Moses thus imbues his Ending with provisions for the Israelites’ new Beginning.

And as I mentioned earlier, the reading of the end of the Torah scroll is no ending at all, since we immediately begin reading the scroll anew. To underscore the circular aspect of the Torah-reading cycle, it is a wonderful visual to see a Torah scroll completely unrolled, in a large circle, with the scroll held gingerly every few feet at top and bottom by the adults in the room.  The end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis thus meet end to end, almost kissing, creating a ring of Torah. And after completing the reading of the Torah scroll, the reader need only take a small step to the left to Begin anew with: “In the beginning….”

Does the scroll even have a beginning and an ending when read in this fashion?

And why do we make such a fuss over beginnings and endings? Because beginnings and endings are where humans experience so much that is important and memorable. The majority of the mundane work we carry out occurs in the Middle, but goals are set in Beginnings, and triumphs and failures are noted in Endings.  We mark accomplishments based on when we begin and end work on a goal. We mark time based on when things begin and end. And new Beginnings derive from earlier Beginnings coming to an End!  This is why change is so universally hard – it is replete with beginnings and endings, and all the challenges they entail.

You’ve heard the expression: “When one door closes, another one opens.”  This is just another way to express the fact that endings often yield beginnings. One of my favorite meditations for a memorial service begins: “Birth is a beginning, and Death a destination…” Contemplating our actual human beginning and ending inspires us to lead more meaningful lives. Endings abound with opportunities for improvement and fresh Beginnings.

Simchat Torah itself marks the end of the holiday season that begins each new Jewish year. And so I wish you a year – and a life – filled with wonderful Beginnings and Endings, although as with our Torah readings on Simchat Torah, not necessarily in that order.

Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday) to all, and to all a good life…

B’ahava,

Cantor Jacqui