We belong to a tradition that values learning and education. A book is central to our existence. And so we read this book cover to cover in one year’s time. We pour over the words of our Torah week after week. On Saturday afternoon we begin reading and studying the week’s portion and the following Saturday morning we finish the portion. And it is this that we celebrate on Simhat Torah. On this day we unroll the Torah scroll and conclude the reading cycle and then immediately begin again.
There is no pause in our study, no break in our schedule.
We dance and celebrate that we are privileged to once again reach this milestone, that we can once again clutch the scroll and read its words for another year. That which defines us, that which is our essence is celebrated on this day. Pouring over the letters of a scroll is what makes us Jews and what binds us as a Jewish people. We are made Jews each and every day we open this book. We study and learn.
What does it mean to be dedicated to learning and education? Are we to memorize the words of our sacred text? Are we to be able to recite its stories and its laws by heart? That is not our task. It is instead that we read and discuss, chant and debate. The Torah’s words are the starting point, the beginning of the Jewish discussion. The answer does not end with its words, but rather begin in between its lines.
That is why the Jewish ideal of study is l’shma, for its own sake. We study with no other goal in mind but to learn and expand our horizons of understanding. We listen to the interpretations of our friends sitting across the table. We remain open to different understandings.
There is of course the faith that our study will lead to right action. The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.” (Kiddushin 40b)
Still our tradition has long argued that this need not be the goal we bring to the conversation and debate. If we enter the study hall with an open heart, if we open the scroll for learning’s sake, then good will emerge. That is our faith.
And so we dance and sing in celebration of this day. It is a joy to study. It is a joy to learn.
It is an immeasurable joy to mark the beginning of another year holding a book in our arms.