Tomorrow, we will exit the Clouds of Glory that the huts of Sukkot symbolize. For eight days, we have been asked to re-experience the Divine protection that shrouded our ancestors as they left the narrow straits of Egypt’s slavery. Into the clouds through the desert we went with them, sustained by the spirit of G-d rather than the earthly walls of our houses, businesses, and material belongings.
Now we fall out of the Clouds into Simchat Torah, and in the classical Jewish tradition our holiday joy is mixed with a sprinkle of sadness. We conclude the annual Torah cycle with the poignant death of Moses on the edge of the Promised Land. “And there never arose again in Israel a Prophet like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face,” the Torah concludes, adding in its very last verse a nostalgic reference to “all the mighty hand and all the awesome fear that Moses executed before the eyes of all of Israel.”
The proximity between our exit from the Clouds and the harsh wake-up call of Moses’ death, has profound national significance for the Jewish people. Rashi and our Sages ask what exactly did Moses do “before the eyes of all Israel” that merits being mentioned in the final words of the Torah. Answer: the Golden Calf episode, when Moses was stirred into breaking the Tablets before the Israelites’ eyes, after he returned from 40 days and 40 nights working with G-d only to find his wayward people in the throes of idolatry.
By reminding us now of the Golden Calf story of ultimate betrayal, unconditional love, and radical forgiveness, the Torah is telling us that its divine spirit is certainly on top of Sinai, in the divine clouds, but that it must be lived and experienced in the material world of the people. And that as a people we must understand that if we reject the Torah ideals, and betray its commitment to the poor, the stranger, social justice, and integrity, the Torah might as well be shattered.
As we exit the clouds and return to our material world, the Torah is insisting that, like Moses, we the people must have unconditional love for one another. This extends even to those who, like the Golden Calf conspirators, reject our most fundamental beliefs at the worst of time. We must always forgive one another for the sake of a higher national mission — that expressed in the Torah’s ideals.
Tomorrow, on Simchat Torah, without skipping a beat, we will jump straight from Moses’ death into Genesis and “the beginning of G-d’s creation of the Heavens and the Earth.” Hope, and a universal message of renewal, will sound, even in the vicinity of loss — another classical Jewish theme. So here’s hoping for a New Year infused with our historical ideals of ahavat Israel, tolerance, civility in our disagreements, respect for the stranger, renewed search for peace, and a genuine helping hand to the poor and the oppressed.
It can be done. Not only on top of the mountain or in the clouds. But also right here, among us. Chag sameah.