When Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, said “Jews do not have a monopoly on wisdom,” it was a reminder that there are many sources beyond the Torah that directly support our sacred responsibility to tikkun olam — our work to repair the world.
On Simchat Torah we transitioned from the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy) back to its beginning (Genesis). Moses ascends to heaven in the final lines of the Torah, and God tells us that we will never experience Moses again. But we then immediately begin a new cycle of the Torah, starting with the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, which will eventually lead back to the same inevitable conclusion.
The fact that the Torah ends with God saying we’ll never experience Moses again, just prior to us beginning to read the exact same story, suggests that each moment, each experience, and each interpretation is unique.
In “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Things do not change; we change.” While each year we return to the same verses, it is we who are different. With each passing year, we celebrate and mourn and grow and change. And the new people we have become are reading these words of the Torah and hearing its stories for the very first time.
As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” We will perceive Moses and the Torah differently each time we engage because we will be different each time.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” Each year we can mourn the loss of our former younger selves or celebrate our new growth and wisdom — but change will come whether we make peace with change or war with change.
As we transition from the end to the beginning of the Torah, we go through a continuous series of growth and loss, paralleling the birth and loss of Moses and the start and finish of the Torah itself. This structure, flowing from the end to the beginning, reminds us, in the wise words of our very own Pittsburgh native Mister Rogers, “When you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
God creates the world and Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Beginning.
They are tempted by the snake, eat the apple of knowledge, and leave the Garden of Eden. End.
They have two sons. Beginning.
Cain kills his brother Abel. End.
Adam and Eve have another son named Seth, who leads 10 generations going down to Noah. Beginning.
God regrets having created humans and decides to destroy everything on Earth. End.
Noah builds an ark so after the flood animals and humanity will get a fresh beginning. And so, the cycle goes on forever.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” You do not know what challenges or lessons lie ahead, but you recognize that you will grow as you go.
You know that each time you confront the same story and the same challenges in your own life, it’s a new experience, being made by a new, wiser you who has worked and grown beyond the limitations of your former self. The late poet Maya Angelou reminded us, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Our caterpillar cocoon mistakes are valuable for the lessons they teach us to transform into our butterfly best selves.
No matter how many times you’ve gotten it wrong, the person you are at this very moment has never tried before. With a new you and a clean slate, this can be the year that you finally get it right. PJC
Barry Rabkin, who lives in Squirrel Hill, serves on the JFCS board and the marketing committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He was selected for the 2019 – Wechsler Fellowship and Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2019 – 40 Under 40.