Last month, we spent considerable time evaluating and repenting for the actions of the past year. We prayed for a clean slate, a sense of renewal.
As Yom Kippur ended, I felt good. I felt refreshed. I felt ready to take on the new year with last year’s rust shaken off. However, as the calendar moves toward Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the beginning of the yearly reading of the full Torah, my feeling of transcendence is slowly morphing into ambivalence. On one hand, a new year promises a fresh start. On the other hand, it means pressing reset on the same narrative the Jewish people have read for more than 5700 years.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’reishit, (the opening lines of the Book of Genesis), Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden of Eden, Cain kills Abel, and God looks at all of humanity to find favor only with Noah. Stories of banishment, fratricide, and mass destruction greet us from the moment we first set our eyes upon the page, and give us our first impression of Judaism. These stories can be extremely challenging to rationalize. For many years, trying to understand them has kept me at arm’s length from my tradition.
When I decided to re-embrace Judaism, it was in spite of, not because of, these stories. I naturally assumed that Jewish learning would be a positive force in my life: I would read Torah, apply it to my new experiences, and suddenly these stories would become personal and meaningful in a way they had not been before. However, pouring over text by myself, I found that the more I read, the less I understood.
There is a reason Jewish tradition places such a high value on reading and discussing text in public. Jewish learning is not based on text alone; it is based on dialogue. I have learned that to truly trust that my beliefs are solid, I need to discuss them with others and I need to hear them out loud (not from behind a screenname).
I feel the same way about politics.
Last year, I watched the 2016 election divide my friends in college. People who embraced the same culture I do were not embracing the same cultural values. We never discussed our disagreements any further than invectives about the candidates. This summer for the first time, I volunteered on a campaign supporting pro-voting rights candidates, and spent time knocking on doors in northern Virginia. Subconsciously, this work was a way to have the dialogue – not the diatribes – I hadn’t had before the election. Consciously, I just wanted to change the minds of voters and find an outlet to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world).
On a day-to-day basis, arguing with strangers over basic principles was grueling. However, I realize now that this effort advanced my understanding of the importance of Simchat Torah. Was I arguing literally about the stories of B’reishit or other Torah portions? No, but every discussion was a chance to get a fresh perspective on old issues and elevate my arguments. We celebrate the beginning of the yearly reading of the Torah because it gives us another chance to get a new perspective. We have another chance to change.
I am lucky to have grown up in a loving community that gave me the tools to figure out what I wanted from Judaism, but never forced me to go down any one path. I have started attending weekly text study sessions with Jews who observe Judaism in myriad ways. At the same time, as an intern at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I can pursue justice and equity in a way that reflects my values. Together, these experiences are showing me that Simchat Torah does not have to be about trudging through the same narrative year after year; instead it can be a chance to look at that narrative with fresh eyes.