With an Open Probing Mind
Rabbi Reuven Mann
The annual Torah reading cycle is concluded on the 2nd day of Shmini Atzeret with the reading of the last portion of the Book of Devarim, V’Zot Habracha. This triggers a great celebration known as Simchat Torah (rejoicing with the Torah) which is a unique feature of the Jewish religion.
Religions in general do not emphasize the importance of joy in their theological approach but Judaism is different. That is because the goal of this religion is to direct man to live the most perfected type of life possible. If one observes the Mitzvot properly he will thereby obtain mastery of his emotions, enhancement of his understanding and elevated character and behavior. He will find great happiness in the study of Hashem’s Torah and will rejoice in what he will come to regard as “G-d’s greatest gift to mankind”.
On Simchat Torah all Jews, including children are called up to the Torah and even get to carry this treasure and dance around with it. However, there are two major Aliot which are regarded as great honors, Chatan Torah (which concludes the Book of Devarim) and Chatan Bereishit (the opening section of the first Book of the Torah). In Judaism we never actually “complete” our studies but as soon as we finish one cycle we immediately begin the next to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to Talmud Torah.
But there is an additional feature to the honor of Chatan Bereishit. We should not imagine that we are just going to recite all the portions of the Torah ״one more time״. Rather this is supposed to constitute a new and fresh learning experience because we bring to it all the knowledge we have acquired in the past year and we read the same things we have studied in the past with an open mind.
The significance of studying Torah with a sense of intellectual curiosity can be illustrated by a learning habit of the great sage, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick which was revealed by his son, Chaim, in a eulogy he gave for his father which I attended. He recalled that one time he was studying a tractate with his father which they had learned once before. At one point they came upon a difficult gemara which stumped them. Everything came to a halt as the Rav went into deep thought. Chaim, however, remembered how his father had explained this text before and as he began to communicate this the Rav gave him a look which clearly told him not to go any further. The Rav did not want to hear what he had said before but wanted to look at the matter with a completely fresh perspective.
Perhaps this was not just a peculiarity of the Rav but reflected his understanding of the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah. The verse in the Shma says, “and these things that I command you this day shall be on your heart….” and Rashi explains that one should not regard the Torah as though it was old but as something new. This means that one should study with a certain vigor and freshness looking to discover new insights and ideas.
Now that we have concluded the Torah reading cycle and are about to commence a new one this message has great relevance. In the coming weeks as we read the portions of Bereishit we should not just take out our notebooks and review what we have learned in years past.
Rather we should have the capacity to think originally on matters that we have have given much though to before. And even if we retain the “old” explanation we can enhance it and clarify it to greater degree. The celebration we experienced on Simchat Torah was not primarily for having concluded the Torah but to express our joy in being able to participate in the great adventure of Torah study itself. May we merit to obtain a proper appreciation of the great gift which the Creator of the universe has bestowed on His very own nation.