On Simchat Torah we read the last passage of the Torah, but we don’t stop for even a moment when we finish reading the Torah. Instead, we turn around and start over immediately from the first verse. There are many celebrations on Simchat Torah, but they come before we read the last verse and after we read the first verse. Between the end and the beginning, there is no break at all.
When you stitch the first word of the Torah to the last word, you get the word, bal, which means, do not.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson of blessed memory, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, served as chief rabbi in what was then called Yekatrinislav and today Dnepropetrovsk. This metropolis was a major center of Judaism in this region of Ukraine. Rabbi Schneerson served as a bulwark of courage and inspiration against the encroaching influences of communism.
Many Jews depended on him for guidance and for procuring Jewish resources in an era when such provisions were hard to come by. He led the community fearlessly and took public and defiant stands against the regime’s many antisemitic initiatives. His stubborn refusal to toe the official line frustrated many Soviet officials and raised the ire of the regime. In 1939, Rabbi Schneerson was imprisoned and later exiled to Siberia, where he passed away in 1944.
It is told that when word spread of his pending imprisonment, several community members asked him for guidance. How will we survive the pressures and dangers of communism without you, they asked? Rabbi Schneerson offered the following response.
The first letter of the Torah is a bet, the last letter of the Torah is a lamed. If you stitch them together, you get the word bal, which means, do not. What is the message of bal, what are we not to do?
The answer is do not veer from the bet and the lamed. The Torah famously tells us to neither add nor subtract from the Torah. Rabbi Schneerson, who was well known as an original and deeply insightful thinker, explained the word bal on the basis of this prohibition. Do not add to these letters, he admonished, and do not subtract from them.
Adding to the letters bet and gimmel, means to opt for the letters that come immediately after them in the Alef Bet. The letter after bet is gimmel and the letter after lamed is mem. Taken together, the letters gimmel and mem form the word gam, which means also. The word also means, do this and also do that.
Subtracting from the letters bet and gimmel, means to opt for the letters that come immediately before them in the Alef Bet. The letter before bet is alef and the letter before lamed is chaf. The two letters, alef and chaf spell the word ach, which means but. In the Torah, the word but is exclusionary—do this, but do not do that.
The message of the Torah’s first and last letters is that we must do precisely what the Torah tells us to do, said Rabbi Schneerson. We may not practice gam—we may not add to the Torah and we may not practice ach—we may not subtract from the Torah.
If under harsh and difficult circumstances we choose to make our life harder than it needs to be by adding new stringencies that the Torah does not require, we will not survive the trials of the Communist Regime. But the flipside is just as important. If under harsh and difficult conditions we give ourselves license to neglect observances that the Torah requires, we will similarly not survive the trials of the Communist Regime.
There is only one way to survive a trial of superhuman proportions such as this, cautioned Rabbi Schneerson. That is to follow the Torah precisely as it has been given. To follow all the Divine rules that appear between the first and last letters of the Torah. If you observe the Torah as G-d gave it, said the rabbi, G-d will grant you the ability to survive. Somehow, this one will escape, that one will evade, and the other one will survive. It will be miraculous and unanticipated, but you can trust G-d to help.
We, thus, have a dual teaching to contemplate on Simchat Torah as we take no break at all and link the beginning of the Torah to its end—its last letter to its first and its first letter to its last. On the one hand, linking the end and the beginning demonstrates that our heart is in the Torah. On the other hand, this means that we are committed to following the Torah to the letter without veering to the right or to the left.
When we study the Torah with heart, G-d reveals His heart for us. He grants us a year of goodness, a year of protection from suffering, illness, pitfalls, and obstacles, a year of happiness, a year of resourcefulness, a year of peace, and a year with plenty of time for Torah study.