Shemini Atzeret /Simchat Torah – 28 September 2021 (5782)
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12 Haftarah: Joshua 1:1-18
Theme: The end and beginning of the cycle of faith
With great joy, the Torah portion which has the last two chapters of Deuteronomy and the Torah, is read in the synagogue during Simchat Torah (“rejoicing with the Torah”), the festival when the Jewish community ends its cycle of public Torah readings and immediately begins the next cycle of readings.
The completion and beginning are celebrated by dancing and singing with the Torah scrolls. With direct contact with the Torah, the community expresses joy for having received it. At the core of the celebration is the rabbinic teaching that one continues to study the Torah during one’s entire lifetime. In Israel and among liberal Jews, Simchat Torah is combined with Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Day of Assembly”) into one holiday on the day after the conclusion of Sukkot. Among more traditional Jews outside of Israel, they are observed separately on two consecutive days.
While Simchat Torah is a happy holiday, the Torah reading for the festival is not exactly a happy one; for although it is about the blessings given to the tribes of Israel (Deut. 33:1-29), it is also about the death of Moses (34:1-12). I find it sad that he died with just a glimpse of the Promised Land.
Nonetheless, Moses is extolled as unparalleled: “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face.” (34:10). Indeed, he did his job very well till the end.
On the eve of his death, he showed how he cared for the people of God when he blessed the tribes. This has prompted the Midrash to put these words unto his mouth: “All my life, I have scolded this people. At the end of my life, let me leave them with a blessing.” The great medieval sage Rashi said that Moses began by praising the Holy One, and only then spoke of Israel’s needs. His praise for God invokes Israel’s merits and seeks favor for Israel from God as if to say: The people are deserving of a blessing.
While Genesis concludes with Jacob blessing his 12 sons, Deuteronomy (and the Torah) ends with Moses blessing the 12 tribes. The single family has now become a nation poised to enter the Promised Land and filled with the blessings of divine protection and fertile territory.
In the Gospel, Jesus gives the list of blessings (the Beatitudes) in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-11). The blessings transcend tribes and nations and include as a reward the kingdom of heaven.
Today, in this time of the pandemic, we need many blessings, with the gifts of life and good health as most desired. We are told greater blessings fall on the giver than on the receiver because “it is more blessedto give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
When we sing Mi Shebeirach by Debbie Friedman, we ask God to help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing as we ask for the healing of the sick, for the renewal of the body and the spirit. We sing and pray for the blessing to be an instrument in the continued cycle of faith.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What has been your recent blessing? 2. In what ways can you be a blessing to others in this time of the pandemic? 3. What are ways to nurture your faith?
Bibliography: Carasik, “The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy” (Philadelphia, 2015); ETZ Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, 2001); Tigay, “The JPS Torah Commentary” (Philadelphia 1996);
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Minerva Generalao, Philippines, Bat Kol Alumna July 2014