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Dvar Torah - Shabbat Shemini Atzeret

The universal practice of Jewish communities on Simchat Torah is to finish reading the Torah, and then we do two things. First, we immediately restart. We go back to the beginning and once again read about the world's creation. Secondly, we continue the story. The Torah's end is about the last moments of Moshe's life. For the haftorah, we read the first chapter of the book of Yehoshua, Moshe's hand-picked successor.

These two readings make sense, yet they give opposite messages about what is important to us. Beginning to reread the Torah stresses the primacy of the Torah text and emphasises the importance of revision. The next book sees the Torah as the beginning of the progression and sweep of Jewish history. Some things come after, and they also matter. So which is it? Is the text of the Torah the be-all and end-all, or is it a launching pad?

The answer is, as usual, both. When finishing the Torah, we must start again immediately. The text occupies such a prominent and central place in our lives that we can't bear to be a minute without it. This is a part of Simchat Torah.

Conversely, the Torah must be applied in the natural, changing world. As the world shifts around us, it is more crucial, not less, that the Torah be seen to adapt and be applicable to modern times. Yehoshua's book is not a part of the Torah; it is the story of how the Torah left the rarified atmosphere of the camp in the desert and became a practical document in the real world.

To succeed, we must indulge both of these urges. We must look forward and around corners, remembering and learning from the past. We need both. We must be both forward-looking and reflective. That is the challenge of Jewish life and of Torah study as well.

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