A thing I love is that one never completes reading the Torah. Within minutes of chanting its final verses, we’re back again at the beginning and the year-long journey commences all over again.
At the time I didn’t understand. I’d been instructed to go and see my great-uncle Ernst on one of his stop-offs in London between his home in New York and his family in Jerusalem. I duly stood, a dubious teenager, before the venerable man. He looked up at me from the book he was studying and said with a smile, in his accented voice: ‘I try to learn a different commentary on the Torah every year.’
Ernst had been conscripted to the Austro-Hungarian Army for the duration of World War 1; had trained as a doctor and worked in Frankfurt, been imprisoned by the Nazis in Buchenwald, escaped to Britain where, as an ‘enemy alien’, he was shipped to the isle of Mann; had sailed to America in convoy in 1940 and started a new life in New York, where his neighbours in the impoverished block where the family, dispossessed but safe, now settled, found in him ‘the best doctor we ever had.’
Maybe it was the Torah which gave him the strength, not just ahavat Torah, love of Torah, which he inherited from his rabbinic parents, but the fact that Torah remained fresh to him, an undiscovered country through which each year’s new commentary would guide him to different peaks and depths. His life remained an adventure until his hundredth birthday.
It’s Simchat Torah, this Tuesday night and Wednesday: – the ‘Rejoicing of the Law’ as the ghastly formal translation has it. Hopelessly three-legged myself, I still love the singing and dancing. But the deepest magic is the moment when we start all over again from that first ‘In the beginning’ when God says ‘Let there be light.’ Moses’s eyes have scarcely been closed in death after beholding the promised land which he sees but may not enter, before we commence once more with that beautiful poem to the as-yet uninhabited earth, the unspoiled wonder of creation. What’ll happen this time? Not, of course, in the columns of the Torah: they’re always the same. But what’ll they mean to you, me and humanity, in this tempestuous world?
One might think it dull to reread the identical stories every year, those same laws, those boring lists of names. The Torah isn’t about perfect people either, so we get them all over again, those familiar mistakes, those old misunderstandings. Isn’t there anything new to be had?
I don’t think that way anymore. On the contrary, how lucky we are that these same narratives accompany us year by year, generation after generation, our Shabbat-fellows, thought-fellows, the core and substance of that constant conversation across centuries and continents. What does that word mean? What did Rashi say? How come it sounds so different to me now from how it seemed last year? It’s not just that we measure out our lives in Torah portions, but that they are the measure of us. What’s the ladder made of this year which connects my heaven and my earth? Who’s going up? And coming down? Will I find liberation? Will I hear God this time round?
I’ve taken to storing in my prayer books and Torah editions those small cards with the names of those who perished, which come with the yellow candles for Holocaust Memorial Day. There I find them year by year. But not just them; my family are here too. My father loved this phrase; he used to sing it at the end of his life. And didn’t that girl who had her Bat-Mitzvah six years ago say something gripping about that verse?
It’s not just that we dance with the Torah; we dance in it; and it sings and dances in us. That’s the simchah, the joy, of Torah.