Last week on Simchat Torah, as we tried our hardest to celebrate especially for our youngest kids, knowing what we already knew, there was a verse I was chanting in the Torah that just gutted me even more. It’s the very last line attributed to Moshe in the Torah, his last words. The final line of Moshe’s blessing to the people said:
Happy are you, fortunate are you, people Israel, who is like you,
a nation saved by the Divine
your helping shield, whose sword is your pride.
Your enemies shall recant themselves to you
and you on their high places will tread.
Ashrecha Yisrael, mi chamocha, am nosha b’Adonai
magen ezrecha, asher cherev ga’avatecha
v’yika-chashu oyvecha lach,
v’atah al bamoteimo tidroch
And I thought in that moment, is it possible that not a single word or phrase of that Torah is true?
Not happy, not fortunate. Not saved; no helping shield. No Mi chamoacha, no callback to the moment of escape from Egypt, from danger into freedom, An enemy far from recanting, from going back on its essence — and who is treading on whom today.
Was even our own Torah going to be turned on us, to mock us, and on our holy day no less and in the presence of our sweet little ones. Or was this some kind of invitation toward even more faith, a faith that Torah can be as powerful as the weapons and mutated imaginations that define our reality right now.
And with those wonderings ringing in my soul we turned on Simchat Torah to the very first verses of the Torah, the first words of our parasha today, and they too seemed unreal: the creation of light in a reality hitherto dark and formless all the way down.
This is the week we are starting the Torah again. Against the backdrop of murder and kidnapping and mobilizing and bomb shelters, mourning and fearing for our loved ones and our people, this is the week we start again fresh. Each year when we get to Parashat Bereshit we’re supposed to have become better prepared by the chagim (fall holy days) for a new year of Torah, to be more receptive to it than ever before. Yet we know ahead of us is for certain a week of more death, and certainly weeks and who knows how much of 5784. What kind of strength will Torah have, this week and beyond, and what kind of strength and wisdom can it give us?
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Jon Spira-Savett is Rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, NH. This was a sermon given on the morning of Parashat Bereshit 5784 – October 14, 2023).