The first day of creation, according to the Nuremberg Chronicle
The first day of creation, according to the Nuremberg Chronicle

At Torah’s end, why do we start again so rapidly, leaving us no time to revel?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Bereishit

Genesis 1:1-6:8


So … here we are again … all the way back around to tohu vavohu — darkness and void. We start over with a new cycle of Torah. Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz … In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

But wait. Weren’t we just about to enter the Promised Land?

Ours is a great story, really. One of the best humanity has ever seen. From nothingness God creates everything — with vivid color and wild diversity. In just six days, God creates all that is on the earth and in the heavens above.  From darkness and void, God speaks the world into being — and creates all of the plants, flowers, lights in the sky, animals and people. And then God rests, even showing us how to do that!

God uses words to create. And in parallel form, God’s creation, Adam, uses words to name and identify each of these creations. Our universe comes into existence. And each thing has a name so that we can address it. 

Abra cadabra … Did you know that that famous phrase used by magicians everywhere is actually Aramaic? It literally means, “I create as I speak.”

My 5-year-old is fond of inventing and uttering magic spells. Most start with the words, “Abra cadabra, abra cadoo …” Then the next part of the spell lays out what the magician will be able to cause to happen with his spell. They usually go something like: “Abra cadabra, abra cadoo, make the car window open, boo!” Then with the clandestine touch of a tiny finger, he can cause his automatic window to open, delighting himself — and usually, his mother — with his magic trick. The power of words is thrilling.

With nothing but words and a great vision, God created everything in the universe. But as exciting as it is each year when we return to Bereishit and witness Creation again, it’s always a bit bittersweet, too.

The Israelites — and us, as loyal readers of our ancestors’ story — have come through a challenging journey in the wilderness. They wander and struggle and doubt for 40 years. A whole generation of former slaves dies on the journey; a new generation is born.

Our ancestors survived many trials and tribulations in the desert. And ultimately, at the end of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have arrived just outside the Promised Land. They made it!

They are ready to build a new society. All they need to do is to cross from Jordan into Israel. In fact, the last word of the Torah is Yisrael. The whole journey has been about reaching the land of Israel and becoming the people of Israel. And they are just about there!

Why, then, on Simchat Torah, right after we start a new year, do we challenge ourselves annually by reading the very end of the Torah and then, immediately, the very beginning?

Why not revel in the completion of a long and important journey? Why not allow ourselves to linger for a while at the border of the Promised Land, celebrating our accomplishment with a l’chaim or two?

Instead, we read the end of the scroll, and then we turn all the way to the beginning and we start over again immediately. I mean all over. As soon as we arrive at the edge of the Land of Milk and Honey, we begin our story anew, surrounded by darkness and void.

Why?

I’ve always wondered about this phenomenon … or custom. Or perhaps I should call it our Jewish world view. We are taught to remember where we came from. And to re-evaluate our journey as we travel on it. Our journey becomes our identity. Is that because of the determination and tenacity we learned along the way? Or the strength that comes from overcoming challenges? Is it about always preparing for a new generation to lead us? Or some combination of all of the above?

Never get complacent, the Torah teaches us. Never forget where you came from. And never feel that your journey is complete. Wandering through the wilderness, yearning for a land filled with milk and honey, was a vision that propelled our ancestors forward through difficult circumstances. That vision continues to inspire us.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.