May We Yet Turn Our Circles into Spirals: Simkhat Torah

Here we are again at the seam of the seamless circle.  Year after year on Simkhat Torah, we read the first words of Genesis immediately after concluding the last words of Deuteronomy.  Normally we would dance with the Torah – aspiring to become one with the Torah, after having worked hard to correct our faults during Elul and the High Holy Days, and having celebrated our spiritual harvest for the year on Sukkot.

The question is always, “Are we travelling in a circle or a spiral?  Have we or Genesis changed in any way since we read those same words a year ago?”  If we have changed, hopefully for the better, the way we read and understand those same words year after year will also change and grow.

For Simkhat Torah, the Hassidic master Sefat Emet comments on one of the opening versus of final Torah portion of Deuteronomy,  “Moses commanded us Torah, an inheritance for the community of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4)

“The souls of Israel are vessels into which the light of Torah is able to flow.  Thus it is that the light of Torah is interpreted and illuminated in accordance with the worthiness of each generation….”We” and ”Torah” are thoroughly bound together….

The verse continues, ‘an inheritance for the community of Jacob.’ The sages said ‘Do not read it as “inheritance” (morashah), but rather as “betrothed” (me’orasash) like a bride to her bridegroom. Both readings are correct. Torah really is a gift with the souls of Israel, but it is only as the person prepares himself that the light of Torah is renewed for him/her…..”Strength” refers to Torah in its essence, while “light” is the shining forth of Torah, renewed for us constantly, but according to our efforts….That is why Scripture first says: ‘Adonai will give strength to God’s people.’ (Psalm 29:11) and then ‘God will bless God’s people with peace.’  The blessing is that which is added through the constant renewal of Torah…”

The translation into English is that of Art Green, who comments “Here he warns against those who view Torah only as an “inheritance” something to be passed on unchanged to the next generation. Such a Torah will indeed have “strength,” the power to protect Jewish existence, but it wil be without “light,” the true purpose for which Torah was given.” (“The Language of Truth The Torah Commentary of Sefat Emet. Art Green. pp 375-376)

Every year I certainly hope that we will see the spiral in our lives and in our world.  We will be better, and the world will be a better place because of the flashes of Torah light we have learned and assimilated into the ongoing Torah in our lives.  I am on optimist by nature, but this week received a harsh reminder of just how much light we still need.

Almost every year settlers attack Palestinian farmers exercising their elemental right to harvest their olives. Yitzhar and Adei Ad are two of the epicenters of this violence.  For all the hope that this year might be different, it wasn’t. We seem to be in a circle, and not a spiral.

On Wednesday, farmers from Hawara attempted to harvest their olives on slopes rising towards Yitzhar.  There are areas where the army requires the harvest to take place only on days designated in advance, but this was an area where the farmers can harvest whenever they choose.  Needless to say, even if the farmers were harvesting in an area they are only allowed to access on designated days, that does not mean that settlers have the right to violently attack, or take the law into their own hands.

The settlers attacked, injured and set trees alight.  What is worse, pictures indicate that soldiers arrived, and did nothing to stop the settlers, and then shot tear gas at the farmers when some of them tried to defend themselves.

I know that the army has been preparing for two months for the olive harvest.  I have seen over the years the directives sent out from the Army Legal Advisor’s Office to commanders.  I know there is an attempt to carry out the directives of the Morar High Court decision of 2006, that I was one of the architects of. I know that, as a result of that decision, many Palestinian famers now access lands previously denied to him. But, I also know that the spiral has stalled.  In fact, the overall degradation of Palestinian agricultural lands, and the increasing financial losses, are staggering. That means we are degredated.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch comments on the very last words of Deuteronomy, “and for all the great might and awesome power Moses displayed in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). He writes:

“Among Israel and against Israel – He did this for the Torah that was passed on to Israel and so that Israel would exist for Torah.  These signs were demonstrated as a great warning for all generations.  They warn the violent aggressor who rises against Israel from without. They also warn all those arrogant and errant who emerge from within Israel. Do not imagine that you will succeed in separating the Jewish people from their purpose and endanger the mission of Moses.”

On Wednesday we saw that the arrogant and violent still are rising up among the Jewish people, and they have temporarily separated the Jewish people from our purpose.

The essence of our purpose is to be found in what we read in that first chapter of Genesis we will read after those last words of Deuteronomy.  We are to teach the world to act according to the truth that all human beings are created in God’s Image – not just Jews, and not just the wealthy and privileged. Specifically, both men and women. (Genesis 1:27)

On Wednesday we saw that many continue to commit the idolatry of putting the Land of Israel ahead of honoring God’s Image in every human being.

So, my prayer for this Simkhat Torah, falling at the outset of the olive harvest and as we face many social internal Israeli social justice needs as well, is that something will yet change within us as we attempt to become one with the Torah on this Simkhat Torah.  On this final day of this holiday season, may a flash of Torah transform our circle into a spiral.

Shabbat Shalom and Khag Sameakh.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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