Shabbat Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah
October 7, 2023 | 22 Tishrei 5784
Torah: Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12; Genesis 1:1-2:3;
Numbers 29:35-30:1 Haftarah: Joshua 1:1-18
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
I like the ideas of the creation of the world (or universe) as an on-going process, and our involvement in it, through the covenant, as essential to its goodness. Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
God’s Origin Story
On Simchat Torah, we read the end of the Torah and then we start again at the beginning. We go from standing at the brink of entering Israel back to the vast and void nothingness before creation. Traditionally, the story of the Torah is the story of the creation of the world, the foundation of Israel, and the redemption from Egypt. It’s a linear story that ends just as the promise of being a great nation planted in our own land is about to be fulfilled. But Simchat Torah invites us to read the Torah in a nonlinear fashion. We are invited to read it as a story without a defined beginning and end. VeZot HaBracha, the final blessing from Moses to Israel, can become the prologue to the creation of the world. Moses’s last words become the state from which Bereshit happens. We experience not creation ex nihilo but rather creation from blessing.
Much of Moses’s final blessing is devoted to blessing the twelve tribes. But before he gets to that part, Moses defines God for us. He tells God’s origin story. It is a necessary prequel to creation, presenting God’s backstory. When we meet God in the first verse of the Torah, God is already creating the heavens and the earth. God seems absolute and fully formed, everlasting from before creation. God is creator not creation. Good and bad are already defined in God’s eyes. God already knows the correct order in which to create the world.
Moses’s final blessing allows us to read the Torah as God’s backstory for creation. The reasons that God exists as God does, that God creates as God does, can be found in the story of the creation of God found in the rest of the Torah.
We read of God in Deuteronomy 33, “The LORD from Sinai came and from Seir He dawned upon them, He shone from Mount Paran and appeared from Ribeboth-Kodesh, from His right hand, fire-bolts for them.” The places mentioned here serve both as a travelog of where the Israelites have traveled on their way out of Egypt and also as a reminder of all the nations God creates and with whom God maintains relationships. Seir is connected to Esau and Edom. Paran is connected to Ishmael. God bursts into being from the places where God is in relationship with people. God’s existence comes from covenant.
The verbs used here in connection with God are verbs of light. God dawns, God shines, God appears. This God who comes from light then will naturally make light as God’s first act of creation when we turn back to Bereshit. God who is light will say “let there be light.”
The word translated as “fire-bolts” plays with a similar idea of light. In Hebrew, the word is eshdat, a hapax legomenon, a word appearing only once in the Tanakh. Its exact meaning is uncertain. When read out loud, it is pronounced as two words, esh daat. Esh means fire. Daat is more complicated. It could come from a Persian word meaning “law.” It may come from the root dalet-aleph-yod and mean fly. We would have, therefore, either “fiery law/the fire of law for them” or “flying fire for them.” A midrash on this verse elaborates on the possibility of fiery law. In Sifrei Devarim 343:13, we read an explanation of our verse, “from His right hand (He gave) them the law of fire,” which explains that “when the word left the mouth of the Omnipotent, it left by way of the right hand of the Holy One and the left of Israel and encircled the encampment of Israel, twelve miles by twelve miles, and returned by way of the right of Israel to the left of the L-rd. And the Holy One Blessed be He received it with His left hand and engraved it into the tablet. And His voice traveled from one end of the world to the other.” The midrash imagines God’s giving of law on Sinai in light of the imagery of creation. God’s words become fire, shot from God’s hand, which circle the world and then form shapes by engraving stone. Just as we will read in Bereshit, the act of God’s speaking has physical consequences for the world.
God as light and God’s speech as fire contrast with the waters, present and looming in the creation story, in which they stand in for chaos which can be controlled. We find echoes of a battle between light and dark, fire and water in both Deuteronomy 33 and Genesis 1. This echo reverberates in yet another ancient description of God, another fragment of God’s backstory, which appears in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. There, we read, “O LORD, when You came forth from Seir, “when You strode from the fields of Edom, the earth heaved, the very heavens dripped rain, the clouds, O they dripped water.” This verse marries the backstory of God with the creation story of Genesis. God births Godself even as God births the world. The Exodus story turns into a story of the creation of God so that God can create the world.
This year, as we recite Moses’s words, we too engage in a speech act of creation, a telling of the story which produces God who can then produce us.