Simchat Torah: Back to Zero

Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, October 21, 2011

(Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy...)

I am not a narratologist. Or whatever clinical thing you call people who study stories. I certainly like a good narrative. I like novels better than short stories because they end in ways that tend to be forward looking and more often than not optimistic. Whereas short stories always end too soon for me; I haven't built up enough momentum to smash through the sad dead end of their short word count.

As a Jew, I appreciate our practice of narrative multitasking. We read two books at a time, supplementing our weekly Torah portion with a second text, usually from one of the prophets, in what is referred to as a Haftarah. While the connection between the two texts might at first seem superficial, every time we look at them side by side, we can divine a new way that they speak to one another and to us.

I also appreciate our custom of narrative circularity. We no sooner finish reading the end of the Deuteronomy on Simchat Torah than we dive right back into the beginning of Genesis. This is an old, fixed custom. We could have developed a longer reading cycle, going through all our 39 books of scripture over years or decades. How lovely and juicy it would be to spend a whole year with Song of Songs. Or how intense to spend a year with Ecclesiastes, hearkening back to some moody semester of college spent wearing black turtlenecks and reading Sartre.

But no, by formula we read just the first five books, from God's first word to Moshe's last breath, timed to fit the span of one turn around the sun. And then there we are, back again, at one of history's most memorable opening lines.

B'reishit. In the beginning...

Of course there are other opening lines that could have worked. For instance, if Torah opened with Cain and Abel, we could have stolen the opening of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Or if Torah started with Noah, we could have gone with Chaucer: "Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote," you know, about April showers. Or, more dramatically, with the Bulwer-Lytton chestnut, "It was a dark and stormy night."

But to start big, to start in a cosmos-sized way, requires ambition. We might have arrived at his: 

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

That, of course, from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But I think, all things considered, we did pretty well with b'reishit as written:

In the beginning of God's creating the heaven and earth, the earth was void and without form, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God's spirit fluttered on the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

Face it. It is the opening of all openings.

Of course we don't get much information about what was going on before this moment, if there was a moment before this moment. But the Kabbalists fill in the gaps. Before this there is nothing. Or more precisely, before this, all is God. There is only Oneness, which is more like nothing than it is like something. Existence is both empty and chock-full. Ayin, אין, an infinite, undifferentiated zero which is, in itself, God. Then somewhere is the flicker of God's first thought. A slight stirring, God's spirit fluttering over the deep.

In this mystical paraphrase, God then performs an act of tzimtzum, a contraction, a clearing of space in which the world will be created. But not physical space - God continues to be everywhere. But conceptual space: God makes room for an idea: the idea of not-God.

The idea of multiplicity, of separateness, of uniqueness. The idea that I can feel separate from you and from this podium and from these clothes; and that individually and collectively we can buy into what the mystics would consider the illusion that we are not God.

Meanwhile, back in the plain text of the Torah, the Universe begins to divide like a newly fertilized egg. First into two - light and dark. Then another split into sky and sea. Then water and dry land. Earth and other heavenly bodies. The cell division accelerates so that plants are born, and fish and land animals and birds and then human history is launched, and we leave simplicity further and further behind us in the dust. We become estranged from Oneness or from Zero-ness. Individuals to families to tribes to nations. Languages, cultures, customs. Misunderstanding. Suffering. Enslavement. Freedom and migration. So much to hold and balance and try to understand.

Until, in Torah at least, we reach the brink of salvation, with a view into a Promised Land that looked to our ancestors more like Eden than anything they'd ever seen; a peek into a long dreamed-of future that strongly resembled the distant and simpler and greener past. And with that simultaneous glance forward and back, we reach Torah's end.

Moshe dies, heartbreakingly, on this brink, without crossing over. The story of course continues. The people cross into the land, which turns out less Edenic than it looked from across the river, they conquer it anyway, and mythology gives way to the harsh business of history. The story continues - but not our narrative, not the way we read it.

The way we read it, our narrative backflips to its starting point: Moshe dies, and then the world is created. Poet Esther Schor has gone as far as to suggest that the seven days of creation are nothing less than God's shiva for Moshe.*

And why not? How can we not see the loop as continuous? Our sages of old specifically said

eyn mukdam um'uchar batorah - there is no before and after in Torah. To them, sequence always played second fiddle to meaning.

So we cycle around.

God inhales Moshe's soul with a kiss, and the next thing we know, there is God exhaling ripples onto the surface of the deep. But there is a moment in between. A moment of returning to zero, like a movie actor between takes, like a cross-fade through black. Moshe returns to that Oneness, that same emptiness, that preceded everything. And we go with him.

And then bang - Big Bang - we're off and running again. B'reishit...

What if we could do this in our lives? In all our personal ebb and flow? When our complexity starts to feels like chaos. What if we could have that moment of zero back. Where we empty ourselves of all the distinctions: this and that, before and after, you and me, desire and obligation, love and loneliness. A moment just to be - so purely to be that it's almost like not being at all. Let's all just take a moment to close our eyes and breathe it all out. Let yourself feel empty. Let worries and complexities drain from you. Go to a place inside you that no one else even knows. Embody that space. And then let yourself sink even a little deeper. Back to where you were before language. Before birth. Sit and breathe. Then when you're ready, open your eyes, and enjoy the treat of seeing this world again.

That is a tiny taste. A read practice of going back to zero might feel something like that. There are plenty of Buddhist practices and Jewish ones too aiming at just that.

And the availability of the return to zero is modeled by our Torah reading. From nothing we move into so much and then we circle back to nothing. Every year. Circle after circle after circle.

But there is one more dimension to this incessant spin. Moving through zero might renew us. It might offer us a fresh eye and startling new awareness. But it doesn't actually start us over again. So I don't experience this cycling of Torah as a simple circle. Because even if the words of Torah that I read are the same this year as last, I am not. I see things differently than I did a year ago. I notice different things in the story. Different characters draw me; different problems trouble me.

Our looping Torah is only a circle when looked at flatly, two-dimensionally. But add the third dimension - me - and the circle reveals itself as a spiral, a helix corkscrewing forward. The story circles but moves onward with me. My changing life brings new information and new insight to the story as it and I move forward together. My life becomes the Haftarah.

So every Simchat Torah we go back to the beginning at the same time that we continue to forge ahead. We point in both directions, with the wonder of the newborn and the wisdom of the elder. So given that, what would a suitable closing for Torah be?

We could co-opt famous forward-looking closings, like "Tomorrow is another day." Moses could accept his imminent death and intone, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." Or he could address God using the same petname that Berrine here uses, and say, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Or with equal validity, we might foreshadow our imminent return to the beginning, using the closing of The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In point of fact, Torah ends this way:

No other prophet like Moshe has arisen in Israel, who knew God face to face. No one else to produce the signs and miracles that God let him display in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his land, or to do any of the acts mighty or terrible that Moshe did before the eyes of all Israel.

That's it. There was never and will never be another like Moshe, who saw God face to face.

Never, that is, until the next read-through.

And there he will be again. Poised, looking toward God and God looking back, their eyes locked, their gaze pointing in both directions. And we will be back there too, having passed through zero in order to see this scene anew. We will be back there, because our tradition insists on it. We will have beaten on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. But as we look, we will inevitably be moving forward as well. And why not? After all, tomorrow is another day.


* If you have limited time, stop reading this drash this instant, and click here to read Esther's brilliant and inspired piece instead.