CULTURE The Month of Opportunities
If we consider the holidays of the month of Tishrei on the whole, we notice that they are comprised between two beginnings. The first holiday, Rosh Hashanah (New Year), marks the beginning of a new year on the calendar, with all the hopes and expectations that every new start brings with it. But also the last holiday, Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law), marks a beginning: it’s about restarting the public reading of the Sefer Torah, with all the Study that goes with it. It is definitely striking that the two beginnings, of the Calendar and of the Reading, do not coincide. Against all apparent logic: it would have been appropriate for the chapter of the
Creation of the world (Bereshit) to be read on the day of Rosh Hashanah, anniversary of the Creation itself. However, the Masters wanted otherwise. Some people consider the postponement as a necessary act of respect for the Sefer Torah: it wouldn’t have been respectful to start a reading and then suspend it right after because of the Mo’adim. But some people give a different interpretation. The study of the Torah needs to be undertaken with joy, because the Torah itself is joy. For this reason, it is necessary to wait until the holiday of Sukkot, have already experienced the joyous atmosphere of the Sukkah, the great celebration of the Lulav, and then start a new cycle of Parashot. The Shofar of Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Repentance and the fasting of Kippur, with their stern nature, remind us of a rigorous behaviour. Rigour of the Action and Joy of the Study are the two fundamental principles of Judaism: it is no coincidence that they are reaffirmed at the beginning of every year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come before Sukkot and Simchat Torah: if there’s no Joy, there can be no Study, but if there’s no Rigour, there can be no Joy. Traditionally, the month of Tishrei is called Yerach ha’Etanim, “the Month of the Mighty” (I Kings 8) because, as explained in the Talmud, “it is the month in which the mighty ones of the world were born” (Rosh Hashanah 11a), the Patriarchs who sustain the world with their merits. The Masters say that Tishrei is an “opportunity” not to be missed to get closer to G-d. Even though during the year we always have Providence, during this month He is closer to the Man: “seek the L-rd while he may be found” (Isaiah 55). The double beginning we talked about is meant to strengthen our faith and our Jewish commitment. We shall make a habit of looking at everything with the optimism that characterises every new thing: as if every day of the year were a beginning! It is well known that our tradition recognizes two torot: the Written Torah, the Bible in the strictest sense, which Moshe received on the Mount Sinai and in the Tent of Meeting and immediately wrote down, and the Oral Torah. The latter contains all the interpretations of the Written Torah that Moshe passed on to his disciples. Much later on, when it was feared that the persecutions might destroy such spiritual heritage, the interpretations were put on paper. They became the Mishnah and the Talmud. Certainly, we approach the Mishnah and the Talmud with rather different rules and methods from the ones we adopt towards the Bible. The Kedushah of the Sefer Torah is the fixed set of rules we apply to hand down the Scriptures. Thus, it is an objective Kedushah. On the contrary, the Oral Torah “sanctifies a man’s thought and heart and opens up new horizons for the inspiration of the Kedushah”. Therefore, it is an individual Kedushah. There is no doubt that the Kedushah of the Written Torah, being objective, is the most important of the two, as the Sefer Torah embodies the very Kedushah of G-d’s Word. Yet, from the point of view of the method, it is necessary to practise the Kedushah of the Oral Torah, a careful analysis and consideration of the Mishnah and the Talmud, in order to get to the Kedushah of the Written Torah. This fundamental principle of the Jewish faith seems reflected in the sequence of our autumn holidays: only during Simchat Torah, our last holiday, we get to the Kedushah of the Sefer Torah. Before that, during the long period of repentance marked by Rosh Hashanah and Kippur, we have to analyse ourselves using questions and answers, as we do to study the Oral Torah. It’s no surprise, then, that the word “Teshuvah” traditionally means both “repentance” and “answer”. However, to get to the Kedushah, we also need ‘anavah, humility. While Teshuvah measures our distance from G-d – “call on Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6), the Prophet said – anavah tells us how far we still are from G-d. Anavah is not passive acceptance of one’s nobodiness; it is active consciousness of one’s limited nature. Anavah means giving up the boundaries imposed by the ceiling (the home in the Sukkah) and longing for the sky (the waving of the Lulav). The first letters of these three virtues, Teshuvah, Kedushah and anavah, make up the word “teka”, used to call the sound of the Shofar: teka be-shofar gadol lecherutenu, “sound the great Shofar for our freedom”. Le-Shanim Rabot, Tovot u-Mtukkanot.
*Alberto Moshe Somekh is a rabbi. Translation made by Sara Volpe and Federica Alabiso, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.