Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Death, Rebirth, and Poetry

The holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah have subtle and sometimes overlooked themes of death endings, followed by rebirth and new beginnings. And the Velveteen Rabbi has captured this theme nicely in a recent poem.

Death and endings run through these holidays. One common way of thinking about the four species of sukkot is as a body: a spine, heart, eyes, and mouth. But we don't wave the lulav and etrog on Shemini Atzeret: the body is at rest. We also have no special mitzvot or blessings for Shemini Atzeret, even though it is the eighth day of sukkot outside of Israel. The traditional term for a dead body, niftar, comes from the same root PTR in the word "patar", meaning exempt (from mitzvot). A dead person is someone exempt from mitzvot, and on Shemini Atzeret, we are exempt from the mitzvot of sukkot. And by Shemini Atzeret, the schach on the sukkah is turning brown (at least if you use palm fronds, not bamboo mats like I usually do); it is starting to look dead.

As we turn to Simchat Torah, we start off by reading the very end of the Torah, the death of Moses. We end the book, and the theme is death.

But another theme emerges: rebirth and new beginnings. The chazzan prays for rain on Shemini Atzeret, a sign of rebirth of plants. And of course once we finish the Torah and the death of Moses, we being it all over again, and read about God creating the world. A new beginning.

The Velveteen Rabbi writes poems about each parsha. Most are good; some are quite good. And this week, she penned Mobius (V'zot Ha-Brakha), about the last parsha of the Torah, Simchat Torah, and the annual repeating cycle. She picks up on some of these themes. She begins:

I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

The poem is short, clever, and worth the read.

These two holidays represent the culmination of the long process that began at the beginning of Elul. May we all become the better people we wish to be.

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