Vezot HaBerachah: Dancing with the letters

Wooden rollers wind the parchment back:
black fire etched on white;
an open book about to be revealed.
And while the scroll is furled
back to that first word, we pause
between the end and the beginning.
And in that lull, a silent call –
to dance with the letters
as with a bride, rejoicing
in the blessing which flourishes anew.


After we complete the annual reading of the entire Torah on Simchat Torah, we immediately begin the cycle again by reading the beginning of Bereishit. In his book, Orchard of Delights: The Ohr Chadash Torah Commentary, Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman describes the “spiritual no-man’s land, suspended somewhere between the end and the beginning” in which we find ourselves, while the Torah scroll is being rewound (or a second scroll is being readied). He says that the Midrash teaches that the letters of Torah are like black fire engraved on parchment that is analogous to white fire (Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 280). Rabbi Trugman suggests that to understand even a fraction of the wisdom encoded in the black fire takes a lifetime, while the wisdom in the white fire is at present beyond human comprehension. He adds, “On Simchat Torah we do not emphasize studying Torah. Instead we dance on the white fire as if all is an open book waiting to be revealed.”
In the book, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table (Vol. 2) by Rabbi Arthur Green and others*, a teaching is brought by the Tiferet Uziel** on the verse, “Moses commanded Torah to us, an inheritance of the community of Israel.(Devarim 33:4). The Tiferet Uziel says in the name of his teacher R’ Dov Baer that the sages read the word “morashah” – inheritance as “me’orasah” – betrothed (Pesachim 49b). Rabbi Green quotes the Tiferet Uziel: “We can understand this by a worldly analogy: the king has a beautiful daughter. How improper and disrespectful it would be to take hold of her and dance about like people do in a tavern! It would be inappropriate even to draw near to her, let alone take her and go dancing!
All this is true except on her wedding day. Then the rules are loosened, and even the most ordinary person is permitted to approach her to dance. This is the case with the holy Torah, the daughter of the King of Kings, the blessed Holy One. It would seem improper even to approach her. Yet we are told that Torah is like water; just as water is owned by no one, so too is Torah accessible to all. How is this possible?
The answer is that Moses has given us a “betrothed” Torah. We are forever to approach Torah like the King’s daughter on her wedding day. Everyone has permission to dance with her! All are welcome to study Torah!”
Rabbi Green explains that the Tiferet Uziel has in mind the “mitzvah-tanz,” a special dance at the wedding when even the poor (who were accorded honour at the wedding) were given an opportunity to dance with a wealthy bride. In the analogy of Israel as the bridegroom of the Torah, here the Jew who may feel unworthy to engage in Torah, is invited to join in and dance with the bride.
In his commentary on the Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, Rabbi Green brings one of the Sefat Emet’s teachings on Simchat Torah (when we read Vezot HaBerachah). He teaches that “the souls of Israel are vessels into which the light of Torah is able to flow. Thus it is that the light of Torah is interpreted and illuminated in accordance with the worthiness of each generation.” On the verse, “Moses commanded us Torah,”  he says this means that “We” and “Torah” are thoroughly bound together, and on the continuation, “an inheritance of the community of Israel.(Devarim 33:4) he cites the  sages who read the word “morashah” – inheritance as “me’orasah” – betrothed (Pesachim 49b). He then cites a Simchat Torah hymn which says “It [the Torah] is strength and light for us” and he says, “strength” is the essence of Torah, while “light” is the shining forth of Torah, renewed frequently but according to our efforts. And the Sefat Emet adds that it is taught that “when a person sits and studies Torah, the blessed holy One sits and studies facing him.” Rabbi Green understands this whole teaching as “a defence of ongoing creative reinterpretation of Torah.” He suggests that the Sefat Emet was very much in favour of the Chassidic tendency to keep teachings fresh and new.  Rabbi Green adds, “By the late nineteenth century, the Sefat Emet was exceptional in this regard. Here he warns against those who view the Torah as an “inheritance,” something to be passed on unchanged to the next generation. Such a Torah will indeed have “strength,” the power to protect Jewish existence, but it will be without “light,” the true purpose for which Torah was given. This message is an urgent one for our day as well. “Preserving the tradition” is not an end in itself, but only a means to making God’s light shine forth through it.”
In the book Speaking Torah, Rabbi Green and his co-authors expand on their view of this concept pointing out that we are all Moses’ disciples; what he taught is transmitted to us through the chain of tradition, but it also has to be renewed in each generation. They note the pivotal relationship between teachers and students in Judaism and that the challenge is to be faithful to our teachers but also to pass on a Torah that works for the next generation. They describe this as a covenant: “To enter into a relationship with the tradition means that we open ourselves to being challenged by it. But we also enter into that relationship bringing our whole selves, including our twenty-first-century questions and reservations.”

*Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, by Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose.

**The Tiferet Uziel – Rabbi Uziel Meizels (1744 – 1785) was one of the early leaders of Chassidism in Poland. He was one of the prominent disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and after his death, studied for many years with the Maggid of Mezeritch (R’ Dov Baer, alluded to above) at whose behest he composed his book, the Tiferet Uziel. Already as a child, his great giftedness was apparent. From a young age he became the rabbi of prominent congregations in Poland and was a close contemporary of other great rabbis. Many disciples had gathered to learn from him by the time of his premature death at age 41.

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