We have a number of different ways that we refer to the Torah. Some call it a book, others liken it to a tree, but the image that has always been the most striking to me is I think one of the least expected. In a handful of texts sprinkled throughout the rabbinic canon writers liken the Torah to water. There are a number of reasons for this, the rabbis like to draw natural metaphors for any number of ritual practices, objects, and beliefs, and our tradition has always had a deep connection to the natural world, as have we. They also say that it is a source of sustenance to the people who study it. I’d like to suggest one other reason as well, and that has to do with this time of the year.
At this point we have emerged from the central celebrations of the High Holy Day season. We have warmed up with Selichot, marked the new year with Rosh HaShanah, and done the deep inner work we are called to on Yom Kippur. We have spent a week enjoying the natural beauty of our world with Sukkot and we conclude it with the celebration of Simchat Torah. It seems like odd timing. Wouldn’t it make sense to finish the reading of the Torah before the end of the year, and then pick up the new year with the first Torah portion? Instead, we read that first Torah portion four weeks after we celebrate the new year. In the intervening time we read any number of other sections, including the very end of the Torah as we celebrate a cycle of reading coming to a close.
What a beautiful way to begin a new year, ironically with an ending. The Jewish sense of time is not like others, rather than seeing things on a straight line with a finite beginning and end, we see them in a circle. At the beginning of the year, we take a look at the cycle of things and that can offer a reminder of hope. If things can end, so too can they begin.
And so we come back to the image of Torah as water. We end the year having read through the entire Torah, each week reviewing its well-worn words and stories. It would be understandable to then place the work aside, finish up the last handful of verses in Deuteronomy and move on to the Prophets, or any other body of Jewish literature, but we return back to the beginning because there is still more to learn from it. If you review carefully the texts that talk about the Torah as water, they rarely describe the physical object, or even the words themselves, but instead almost always make mention of water when talking about what we learn from the ancient text. Like a spring, we drink in the words of the sacred books, and as if by miracle the well continues to yield and does not run dry.
This Simchat Torah, as we celebrate, I invite us to revel in the gift of our sacred word that continues to bring sustenance to us year after year, the same texts with new meaning, new inspiration. May it renew our faith that the well of inspiration, Torah or not, does not have to run dry, and that we live in a world of abundance. Let us drink in the words, starting with our first verse…