On Tuesday at our Simchat Torah service and celebration, we will read – I will chant – the last verses of the Torah in Devarim followed by the first ones in Breisheit. Traditionally, the shabbat during Sukkot has a special reading from Exodus and from Numbers about the holiday – its purpose, the commandment to rejoice, what to sacrifice.
The rabbis decided to save the last torah portion, Vzot Habracha (These are the blessings), for Simchat Torah. This very brief torah portion is therefore read only on the day that calls specifically for rejoicing in the ending and starting again of our annual cycle of trying to discern meaning in our family story…
And it is such an odd few verses to read on such a day of rejoicing – we read of the death of Moses, our great leader, the most humble of people, and yet the one whom God knew face to face, knew best. The one who protected us from God’s wrath, who taught us how to be in the world, who was the human face of our liberation, redemption and of our revelation, who sent us on our way and eventually relinquished the reigns of power in an orderly transfer to Joshua, his disciple. We bewailed him for 30 days (Deut. 34:8), and then heeded Joshua (v. 9).
Imagine the wailing, the concern, the fear of the people. Orderly transfer of power is nice, but still, who could be sure that Joshua would be as strong and protective as Moses? Remember how you have felt when you lost a guiding influence who made you feel safe in the world.
Vzot Habracha is a perfect torah portion to relate to Yizkor, this, the second Yizkor of the brand new Jewish year. For centuries, we had just the one Yizkor—on Yom Kippur, when we would remember our martyrs who had died to make Judaism endure. But likely during the Crusades, we added Yizkor to each of the shelosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, as another opportunity to remember our loved ones and to give tzedakah on their behalf (one of the requirements of the shelosh regalim – no one was supposed to appear empty handed).
What really fascinates me this week is that we intermingle Yizkor, remembering our dead, including Moses and the way he saved our people, and celebrating the joys of Sukkot and of Simchat Torah.
Sukkot, that moment when we are commanded to rejoice, is celebrated in this flimsy hut where we are exposed to the elements, to animals, to wind, rain and cold. Where what we have to depend on is each other, our faith in goodness or God, and we rely on our relationships, our memories of and lessons learned from our loved ones no longer with us. We are also commemorating Sukkot as the Festival of Ingathering – Chag Ha’Asif. Historically, it was the ingathering of our final harvest of the year. We would harvest, give thanks, and then worry about whether we would get enough rain – or in our case, enough snow for the tourist trade and for most people’s soul refreshment. Will it be an El Niño year, weak or otherwise, or will we see another winter like last winter? Will the Midwest recover after the devastating drought or receive too much snow?
Ingathering is a theme of one of the weekday blessings in the Amidah: there is a prayer that calls for the ingathering of all Jews back into the land. I’ve always interpreted that prayer in my own heart as being about all Jews joining together to be of one heart: to serve the most holy in truth to make the world a better place.
So, here we are, celebrating, rejoicing while in our state of vulnerability; we are remembering our loved ones in a time of joy. We are doing that quintessential Jewish work of balancing the good with the bad, the happy with the tragic: mourning our losses while saying a prayer that celebrates the glory of the Divine; breaking the glass at a wedding to remember the temple, being able to hold two opposing views at the same time. Jews are grounded in the reality that even when we are heart broken, we can find joy – if not today, then soon; and even when we are happy, we know that sorrow might not be so far away either. Reality is the combination of both.
One of my teachers taught that each Yizkor comes with its own energy: Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, for example. I think Sukkot’s Yizkor easily embraces the messages of this festival: I encourage you to hold in your hearts and thoughts those people who influenced you to celebrate the joys, who shared your sorrows, and who strengthened you at moments of vulnerability…
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