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Thursday, 20 October 2016

Reflections on Simchat Torah and a Kafka Parable

And so we come to the close of the spiritual year. But this is a paradoxical closure – for it’s a closure in which the door to new beginnings is left wide open. On Simchat Torah – added to the end of the festival of impermanence, Sukkot - the slow, regular, week-by-week progression of the Jewish liturgical year, based on the cycle of weekly readings from the Torah, comes to an end.

We read the last verses of the Torah where Moses, a legendary 120 years old, goes up the mountain overlooking the so-called ‘promised land’, the land of Canaan, and before he dies he is allowed to look at the inheritance which has been promised to his people. ‘You can look at it, but you can’t touch it, eat from it’ – the message to humanity at the beginning of the Torah about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil finds its symbolic echo at the end of the Torah in God’s refusal to allow Moses more than a glimpse of what the whole wilderness journey has been leading to. He cannot enter the land. It is the next generation who will inherit the land. It is always the next generation whom we believe will fulfil our dreams of a better tomorrow. So the Torah ends on this bitter-sweet moment of loss – and hope deferred.
But on this festival of Simchat Torah, the pain of unfulfilled longing immediately segues into a new beginning. The opening verses of the book of Genesis follow on straight away and the holy drama begins again. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...’ Moses has died, but creation is renewed. The journey is over, we have failed to reach our destination. And the journey is beginning again, and all lies before us, waiting. “In my end is my beginning” (T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets).
When we dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah we are celebrating the return to the beginning, we are celebrating the renewal of our quest for a story that can give meaning to our lives. We are rejoicing in the unending journey of our people towards a destiny which can never be fulfilled. As Franz Rosenzweig puts it: “this close of the spiritual year is not permitted to be an actual close but must flow back into the beginning...the last word in the Torah gives rise to the first.” In the liturgical year, the spiritual year, we never reach the ‘promised land’. We are always journeying. The spiritual journey itself  – personal and collective - is our destination, our homeland.
The Jewish people, a people who have survived the vicissitudes of history, are a people on an endless journey through time,  a people whose sense of journeying is evoked in Franz Kafka’s incomparable parable:
I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: ’Where are you riding to, master?’ ‘I do not know’, I said, ‘only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.’ ‘And so you know your destination?’, he asked. ‘Yes’, I answered, ‘didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.’ ‘You have no provisions with you,’ he said. ‘I need none,’ I said, ‘the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
‘Fortunately’ – ‘es ist ja zum Glück’ – what a wonderful sense of celebration, anticipation, hopefulness is evoked! That concluding phrase, and indeed the whole parable, is one of the great religious commentaries on the story of the Jewish people. A contemporary midrash to stand alongside the midrashim of old.
What thoughts come to mind as we ponder on Kafka’s parable? We have the destiny of the Jewish people not to be understood; and to have to rely on themselves. They are attuned to a call, a summons, that they alone can hear – Kafka’s bugle (Trompete) is a close relative of the shofar, present at the revelation at Sinai when the people learn of the moral and ethical vision they are to enact; the shofar that in the tradition also announces the coming of the Messianic age and the redemption of humanity. And the journey is always ‘Away-From-Here’,  away from the compromises and disappointments, defeats and suffering of everyday personal life, away from the empty promises and false solutions and unending conflicts of social and political life.
And if there are ‘no provisions’ that can be prepared in advance to help us cope with the dramas of life, then we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness who depend on receiving manna from the Eternal One - their lesson in dependence, their lesson on the hubris of believing that we can be masters of our own fate.  Nothing can save us, Kafka intuits – channelling his innate understanding of the Judaic story as portrayed in the texts of old – unless we are open to receive what life offers us day by day. This is the daily miracle – we receive what we need to keep us going. And we do keep on going – day after day, generation after generation. ‘For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
The Hebrew word torah is from the root y’r’h – ‘to point in a direction’. It’s used of an archer shooting arrows. Torah is not only ‘Law’ – forbiddingly revealed for all time, static and unchanging. Torah is about the direction we are called upon to move. It is the lightning flash of insight when we see the way ahead. It is what we hear when we listen in deeply to the call to our better selves, to enact moments of messianic hopefulness through our compassion, our generosity, our passion for justice. It is the moment of knowing how we have to act. On Simchat Torah we celebrate both the Torah of tradition – that creative wellspring of stories and legends, ethical teachings  and social responsibilities - and the ‘Torah’ of our own times, the teachings and wisdom of voices like Kafka, sometimes far from the mainstream of traditional Jewish texts, that nevertheless flow towards us and nurture our souls.
 
[This piece is one of a series of weekly 'Rabbi-in-Residence' pieces I am writing from September - November 2016 that are appearing in JEU, the online journal of Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden https://en-gb.facebook.com/paideiaFB/ ]




 

 

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