Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thoughts on reading the Torah. Again.

And with a flourish, the yearly cycle of Torah readings begins again. We come out of the holiday season refreshed – forgiven of our sins, overflowing with the joy of celebrating the Torah and ready to make this the best year ever with all the mitzvot and smachot and all the opportunities for joy in our religion which lie at our feet.

We come to shul on the first Shabbat after Sukkot and hear the words “Breishit bara” and we’re off. As we listen to the bal koreh retell of the 7 days of creation, we look through the commentaries and remind ourselves of the classic questions and answers which enrich our understanding. We see that Rashi asks why the Torah has to start with creation, instead of starting with the communal mitzvah of sanctifying the new month given later on. His answer, which ties the creation to the later claims that the Jewish people are not interlopers on land is very nice, but I think it misses the point (no offense there big guy) unless we understand the whole thought process differently.

The Torah, straight through, and the first book especially is not a history book, or a law book, but a compendium of some of the most ridiculous and stupendous failures ever made by human beings. Think about it – man is created…and screws up. He has kids…one of them screws up. The people develop societies…and screw up. Noah is saved…and screws up. This book is a schedule of one bonehead move after another and the stories we celebrate are those which, at some point in them, show our ancestors to be grade A doofuses (I am not sure if that is the proper plural; maybe doofi).

We have just been singing and dancing with the Torah, holding it high up for all to see, but this is what we are showing off to the world? A text which details all the times those we look up to got it wrong? We will read about a father who is tricked, brothers who sell a brother, a leader who makes a life changing mistake and a people who never stop whining! The stories are not about how we succeeded or even all about how God made everything work out, but about how we continued to take a good situation and make it worse through our own stupidity. This is what I am supposed to look forward to every year?

Maybe Rashi’s question was more along the lines of “Why can’t we at least start with the part in which we have codified ways of getting things right – commandments which we still follow in order to highlight how we aren’t complete morons all the time?” In Hebrew it would sound so much classier. Maybe Rashi was asking “Why do we have to start be showing generations of people who, for the life of them, can’t step away from making the worst choice at any given opportunity?”

I think that there is an answer, and it is a comforting one. We celebrate this litany of mistakes because of something that is shown in chapter 3, verse 21. After eating of the fruit and getting caught (brilliant move, Adam and Eve) God then makes them clothing to wear instead of letting them walk around arrayed in fig leaves. My handy dandy Schottenstein chumash cites the comment of Rabbeinu Bachya, that God clothed A and E to show that, despite their error, he still loved and cared for them. Sure, like any parent would have to, he punished wrongdoing, but he still continued to care for his children's well-being. What we are celebrating is the Torah, because after generations of getting it wrong, God still gave us the mitzvot and the Torah! That is the clothing we are provided with and that act of forgiveness, arraying us in commandments, is worth dancing about and is the essence of Simchat Torah. Otherwise, are we really just doing the hora because we are starting to read a book? Shouldn't we be celebrating HAVING the Torah every day? Why do we do so right after our repentance and right before we are going to be reminded that the greatest of our people didn't know how to follow orders given by God because we are recalling the miracle that we have the Torah despite our incessant idiocy.

We can’t start our story with the giving of the first mitzvah because we need the context – so God gives us a law. Big deal. But the fact is, and this is proven time and time again, we don’t deserve it! Humanity doesn’t really deserve God at all. But he sticks around and gives us gifts when we might not really have earned them. Rashi might have understood that we need those earlier stories, the setup of failure, to appreciate how incredible it is that we are eventually given the monumental opportunity to become closer to God through the Torah.

As we start the year, we know that no matter our best intentions, we are going to screw up again, and as we read the exploits of our forefathers, they are going to mess up again. Moses will still not circumcise his son. Yehudah will still sleep with Tamar. No matter how much we delve into these stories and pray for the alternate ending, they will end with the same failures. Watching the recorded Mets game from Tuesday, June 11, 1985 for the 100th time and wishing and hoping won’t change the fact that they are going to lose, and lose big. And after all of our dumb moves, God will still accept us back; we will go into next year being reminded that if we repent, and try to right the ship, the Torah will be there for us, God will be there waiting to give us a special gift, even though we need to try again to live up to it.

And maybe that’s why many Jews like the Mets – maybe we are in tune with stories of lovable failures who don’t deserve die-hard fans. Maybe every season seems like a rerun: we start off the year with hopes and we are generally let down, but we still believe (ya gotta), and at those few moments when we get the incredible gift, we appreciate it all the more.

May we have a year of singing, dancing and celebrating our failures and our successes, the gifts we are given and the opportunities available to us to fulfill the mitzvot, and the knowledge that even though things will probably go south, we still have a committed fan in God.

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