Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Before You Begin Again: Thoughts on Simchat Torah

Many years ago, after finishing the Book of Genesis over a three-year period, I ceremonialized this feat with several women in a siyum. The word, meaning end in Hebrew, marks the completion of a reading of a book of Torah.

We gathered in the sanctuary where we read and chanted Hebrew prayers.

After the service, we met in the library for tuna fish salad and bagels and lively conversation. It had taken us three years to read Genesis and you betcha, it was a celebration!

But the service and luncheon weren’t the only pieces that satisfied. It wasn’t the act of reading that we were acknowledging. Heck, we were grownups and had been reading most of our lives. It was certainly about having read and studied Genesis, but it was less about the reading and more about having finished. It was about completion.

The siyum inspired me to start my own at-home ritual as it related to personal reading: I began a practice of handwriting the title and author of each book that I read into a hard bound notebook that I kept on my bedside table. To stop and savor the finishing for a moment. (I’ve often considered building on this ritual, perhaps entering the titles with an ink pen in calligraphy. Or sit down with the book at my side, with a cup of tea. Someday perhaps…)

Today is Simchat Torah, signifying the end of our readings of the Torah readings for the year. Certainly something for us to celebrate! Sure, we complete innumerable tasks during the course of a year. Think what we do in just one day: a signature on a contract, the final stitch of surgery to wiping down our kitchen counters. We complete it and then we do it again. Almost immediately.

But what if we stopped for just a moment just to acknowledge that the job was done? And that it was good?

Prompt: Describe what you are likely to do after finishing a long project. Next, allow yourself to imagine what you would LIKE to do. How different are these?


Susan E. Fisher said...

This from Larry Kaufman

Everything is a work in progress. (When God reviewed the work of creation, he didn't find it perfect, only very good -- and by the end of parashat B'reshit, God is regretting the whole project and figuring out how to start over and do it better this time.)

I fully understand the satisfaction you felt when you finished the study of Genesis. But part of that satisfaction was probably that now the door was open to begin on Exodus.

That's one reason why graduation ceremonies are so often called Commencement exercises. It's a reminder that we have finished a phase, but haven't completed our journey.

Ellen Blum Barish said...

You make an excellent point, Larry. Finishing Genesis was indeed the beginning of my appreciation for the wisdom and joy of studying Torah. "Commencement" definitely suggest a starting point and I also like how "exercises" suggest that we are always, in some way, practicing. Thank you for your insightful comments.