This was one of my favorite phrases to come out of my recent 18-month program on mindfulness and embodied spirituality for Jewish clergy, run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. One of my teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, spoke them as we came to one of our last mediation sessions of the program.
I echoed these words as I stood on the bimah at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services this year, and I thought of them as we stood with the Torah unrolled at Simchat Torah a few days ago.
Here we are again, for the very first time.
I love the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the singing and the dancing. I love throwing candy to the kids and having a glass of schnapps with the grown ups. I love the spiritual raucousness—the idea of letting loose and having fun in a context of ritual and spirituality.
But it isn’t just fun—unrolling the entire Torah scroll and seeing it held aloft by the members of the community (including those who will celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah in the coming year, standing next to their Torah portion) is to me one of the most moving sights. It is moving because it is so rare—we usually engage with the Torah scroll a few columns at a time in a controlled viewing. It is moving because of the physical beauty of a Torah scroll—the weathered parchment created from natural sources and the careful and exquisite calligraphy. And it is moving because of the ancientness of the words themselves, and how generations of Jews have taken them to heart and made them a part of their lives.
And it is moving because of the fact of it being a scroll. There are no real divisions, the words and verses and chapters and books flow into one another. Seeing the whole scroll reminds us of the fact that we liturgically read the whole thing in order, that we are not able to cherry pick verses or sections we want to read, we must read (and wrestle with) all of it. And seeing the scroll we see that once you reach the end, there is nowhere else to go but back to the beginning.
When we gathered for Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the new year, we gathered at the same time and the same place, but we were not the same people. We had lived a whole year with its joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks, victories and defeats. We were there again, for the very first time.
As we set out to engage with the cycle of Torah reading again, the same is true. The words on the scroll never change. We read the same stories, the same laws, the same ethical teachings every year. But we are different each time we read those words. What speaks to us, what resonates with us, what challenges us will be different this year than it was last. As we approach each portion again this year, we can say, here we are again, for the very first time.
The Torah, like us, ends with death and begins with the creation of life. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses, after having viewed the Promised Land he will not enter, died and is buried. We then go back to the beginning, and read about the creation of the world. Our Torah reading cycle begins anew this Shabbat with Genesis 1.
One of the seeming great ironies of the Torah is that although the narrative arc of the text is the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom and covenant in the Promised Land, the Israelites never make it there. The Torah ends with Moses’s death, with the Israelites still encamped on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. The scroll ends with the journey incomplete.
But perhaps this is not an irony after all. Perhaps the story is meant to be incomplete, that it is not so much about reaching where we are going, but the journey to take us there. For really, do we ever really get to where we are going? We may set goals, we may make plans, but their fulfillment just leads to new goals and new plans. Learning leads to learning, experience leads to experience.
Our lives are linear, but they are also cyclical. We grow and return, return and grow. The cycle of the seasons turns, the cycle of the year turns, and each time we meet them new and fresh. Every day an ending, and every day a beginning.
Each day, we say, here we are again, for the very first time.