The Torah begins with a bang—the Big Bang, the creation of the universe. But it ends with a whimper, albeit a whimper concealed by a very loud noise of another kind. Let me explain.
The system universally practiced among Jews nowadays is to read the entire Torah, from Genesis through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers to Deuteronomy, each year. (Originally, this was a strictly Babylonian custom.) In some synagogues the entire weekly portion is read while in others just a few verses are read; but everyone is reading from the same set portion of the Torah. Occasionally the second day of a festival will occur on the Sabbath, but only (of course) in the Diaspora, leaving Israel (and some congregations elsewhere) reading a week ahead of the rest of the Jewish world. But before too long Diaspora Jews combine a couple of shorter portions and catch back up with Israel. In this way, the entire Torah is completed in the course of a single year, Sabbath after Sabbath—with one exception.
As the Encyclopedia Judaica notes in the fine print to its "Table of Scriptural Readings on Sabbaths," the final portion of the Torah, V'zot Hab'rakhah (Deuteronomy 33–34), "is not read on Sabbath but on Simhat Torah." Though it is read (this year) intermittently during three weeks, it is the only one of the 54 "weekly" portions that does not get a Sabbath of its own. Instead, it is read only during a holiday service when many Jews will be at their jobs rather than at the synagogue. Even for those who are at the service, the hoopla will far overshadow the actual content of the reading. For as well as ending the annual reading of the Torah, V'zot Hab'rakhah marks the end of the three festival-packed weeks of the month of Tishrei: two days of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st and 2nd of the month; the Fast of Gedaliah on the 3rd (this year, because the 3rd of Tishrei fell on a Sabbath, the fast was postponed until the 4th); the Day of Atonement on the 10th; Sukkot, the Festival of "Booths" or "Tabernacles," from the 15th to the 21st; Shemini Atzeret on the 22nd; and finally, Simhat Torah on the 23rd.
Bible readers will recognize that Rosh Hashanah (though not under that name), the Day of Atonement, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret are all biblical holidays (see Leviticus 23:23–36 and Numbers 29). Simhat Torah, though, as late as talmudic times, is merely the Diaspora's second day added to Shemini Atzeret. Even today, this "ninth" day of Sukkot is technically invoked in the festival additions to the prayers and to Grace after Meals as Shemini Atzeret, the "Eighth Day Feast" (in the words of the well-worn Birnbaum prayer book), not as a separate day of "Rejoicing in the Torah." It is indeed called zman simhateinu, "our Festival of Rejoicing," but that applies to Sukkot as well. Nonetheless, by medieval times the day had acquired a celebratory character of its own. By now, it seems, Shemini Atzeret itself has been overshadowed in Israel by the unruly younger twin that has taken over the day. There is no room for the more solemn festival and the raucous one simultaneously. Honors for the person called up to recite the blessings over the final reading, dancing, singing, and (yes) drinking mean that the simhah, the "rejoicing," receives far more attention than the Torah itself.
There is even an aspect to the reading that removes V'zot Hab'rakhah from the limelight. The end of Deuteronomy is followed by a uniquely schizophrenic pair of further readings. In one, the Haftarah, or concluding passage from the prophetic books that comes after every Sabbath and festival Torah portion, the reading is (for once in the year) continued in the "natural" way: read the last chapters of Deuteronomy, turn the page, and go on with the first chapter of Joshua, which continues the story. But before that can happen, there is an alternate universe of reading in which the end of Deuteronomy is followed—as if it were Finnegans Wake—by an immediate return to the beginning of the Torah, to resume the story at its beginning, with the first chapter (and a bit of Chapter Two) of Genesis. So the final chapters of Deuteronomy barely have time to take a bow before two competing alternatives, a return to the beginning of the Torah and a couldn't-put-it-down rush forward into the sequel to the Torah, jostle it off the stage.
Yet these two final chapters of the Torah are worth our attention both in themselves and for what they say about the Torah as a whole. They are completely different in character: Deuteronomy 33 is a chapter of poetry with an apparently prosaic purpose, while in the simple prose of Deuteronomy 34 a great mystery is hidden in plain sight. Deuteronomy 33 is "the Blessing of Moses," offering an oracular pronouncement about each of the tribes (but for Simeon) matching Jacob's own blessing of his sons in Genesis 49. Despite its linguistic difficulties, on a macro level it matches the expansion of the Torah's story from that of a family (in Genesis) to that of an entire people (in Exodus–Deuteronomy). It is clearly full of allusions to Israel's later history, even when the allusions themselves are not so clear. For example, when Benjamin is blessed as "beloved of the Lord," we are told that "he dwells securely near him" (Deuteronomy 33:12). One of these pronouns must refer to Benjamin and one to the Lord; we do not know which, but this must nonetheless be an allusion to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was on the border of Benjamite territory.
Deuteronomy 34 provides a literary linkage to Genesis as well—though both the strictest of the fundamentalists and the strictest of the documentarians might deny that the Torah is a work of belles-lettres. But in fact this is the passage that ties the entire Torah together, for it parallels Genesis 1, if more subtly than Deuteronomy 33 parallels Genesis 49. This is the chapter in which Moses dies—and then: "He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor. To this very day, no one knows his burial place" (34:6). It must be God who has buried Moses, and without witnesses. As in the story of creation, we are forced to ask: How can this event that no one saw be described in such straightforward, plain Hebrew prose? Each time, only God was present; yet He is a character in the story, and not its voice.
Literarily, the Torah ends as it began, invoking the historical story of the Jewish people in a cosmic frame. The Big Bang of Genesis 1 distracts us from the silent mystery of the instant "before" creation (if that is indeed a theologically or scientifically possible moment at all). The silent mystery returns as the Torah comes to a close, with the desert wind whistling over the freshly covered grave of Moses. Now the noise that distracts us comes not from the Torah itself, but from the singing, the dancing, and (yes) the drinking. But when the tumult and the shouting have died, the mystery will remain.
Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
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