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Simhat Torah: The Rebirth of the Word

September 28, 2010

As we approach Simhat Torah and prepare to read of the death of Moses and the creation of the world, I always find myself experiencing a feeling of anticipation and even exhilaration, as if something extraordinary were about to happen. In one sense, all the prayers, introspection and celebration we have done all autumn have led us to this moment: the moment when we leap from the end of the end-the conclusion of Moses’ journey and the final words of the Torah-to the beginning of the beginning, when the world is born and the divine creative process unfolds before our eyes. Only the intense spiritual past-future scrubbing of the High Holidays, and the powerful ritual circles of Sukkot, can bring us to this moment which is both line and circle: the ongoing interpretation of the Torah across history, the eternal spiral of sacred story. This leap across time happens ritually through the closing of one scroll and the opening of another.It happens spiritually as we dance joyfully with the Torah scrolls, inviting them to reach out to us intimately in this new year.

There is no mention of Simhat Torah in the Torah-how could there be?  Simhat Torah by definition is not in the Torah-it is a frame for the Torah. The Talmud, in Megillah 31a, refers to the second day of Shemini Atzeret (observed only in Diaspora) as “the last day of the holiday,” and indicates that the end of the Torah should be read then. The custom of reading the beginning of the Torah on that day as well probably arose in the ninth century. The name Simhat Torah dates to around the year 1000.

Yet the Hebrew date of Simhat Torah appears in an ancient source-an apocryphal Jewish work known as the Book of Jubilees. Jubilees mentions the 23rd of Tishrei as part of the story of Jacob’s return to Canaan:

“In the night, on the twenty-third of Tishrei, Deborah Rebecca’s nurse died, and they buried her… under the oak of the river, and he called the name of the place, “The river of Deborah,” and the oak, “The oak of the mourning of Deborah. Jubilees 32:25-30

Genesis also mentions the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Devorah: “Devorah, nurse of Rivkah, died and was buried under Beit El, under an oak tree, and he called its name Oak of Weeping” (Gen. 35:8). It’s a puzzling mention, because even Rebecca herself doesn’t merit a death notice-why the focus on the death of Rebecca’s nurse?  Why the mention of her burial place?  It’s even more astonishing to hear that she is buried “under Beit El“-under the place of Jacob’s ladder, where Jacob made his original vow to God. As Jacob rededicates Beit El after twenty years, as he fulfills his vow to return and sacrifice to God, Devorah dies and is buried.

Devorah is no doubt a loved elder of Jacob’s household, but she is also a symbol.  Devorah’s name means “bee,” a term across the Ancient Near East for prophetess or priestess. Devorah also means “word.” On some level, we can read the death of Devorah as an allusion to the death of the word. Notice that Devorah is buried under a tree: also a symbol of Torah. If we read the story this way, we notice that the “word” is buried under Beit El-under the place where God first appeared to Jacob.  Only after he buries and mourns Devorah/the Word does the text say: “And God appeared again to Jacob, as he came from Paddam Aram, and blessed him (Genesis 35:9). Perhaps this is a teaching. Devorah represents the prophecy, the word, that Jacob once received at Beit El. Jacob needs to bury Devorah, to complete the truth she and the place of Beit El represent, so that God can appear to him a second time.

We too are apt to fossilize the revelations that appeared to us years ago, missing the things that are unfolding in front of us. We need to honor the words of the past and also let them go so that we can move forward into the future. Simhat Torah is an opportunity to bury the old word under a living tree-to remember the interpretations of the past and prepare for new revelations to come. It is a harvesting and replanting of the word itself.

So it is very beautiful that the Book of Jubilees announces the date of Devorah’s death as 23 Tishrei: the date that Diaspora Jews celebrate Simhat Torah. As we rejoice in the Torah, we are grateful for the many wisdom-harvests we have enjoyed in years past. May we think of Devorah the nurse and be reminded of the Holy One who nourishes us with Torah in every generation and at every moment. May we experience Torah as a living seed, planted in rich soil and sprouting new harvests we cannot yet imagine.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at The Academy for Jewish Religion as well as the co-founder of Tel Shemesh (www.telshemesh.org) and the Kohenet Institute (www.kohenet.com).  She is the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasonsand Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.