Joy At The Year's Renewal

Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30

Our current Torah portion is primarily focused on the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. But we also learn that Moses has finished writing the Torah and places it in the charge of the kohanim, the priests. He then charges them to read it in its entirety at a specific time each year, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths” (Deuteronomy 31:10). At first, this may seem to be a simple statement: In the year of the Shemitah (the seventh year of rest), you are to read the Torah during Sukkot (Feast of Booths/Tabernacles). However, there is more implied in this statement in regard to the time when this occurs.

What is the connection between Sukkot, the end of the year, and the reading of the Torah? First, let’s see if there is a connection between Sukkot and the end of the year. Many in the Hebrew Roots movement flatly reject the Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah—or Yom Teruah as it is known in the Scriptures—as a biblical new year. Because Exodus 12:2 says that the Hebrew month of Nisan is the beginning of the year, at first it seems they are correct. Why would we say that Rosh Hashanah (the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei in the fall) is the new year when the Bible says that it is the first of Nisan (in the spring)? The answer is that Scripture itself recognizes at least two biblical new years.

To support this concept, Exodus 34:22 says, “You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering [i.e. Sukkot] at the year's end.” But this may not be strong enough proof, because a more accurate translation of the last part of the verse is “at the year’s turning.” Since Sukkot is a little more than six months away from the first of Nisan it may seem this is only referring to the time when the year is passing the halfway point and turning back toward Nisan. However, a parallel verse, Exodus 23:16, specifically mentions Sukkot being “at the end of the year.” Thus, we have the religious new year beginning in Nisan and the civil new year beginning on the first of Tishrei. An interesting side note is that the very first word of Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew is b’reisheet, which means, “in the beginning.” However, the letters of b’reisheet (בראשית) can be rearranged to say Tishrei aleph (בתשרי א), meaning “on the first of Tishrei,” signifying that the very creation of the world possibly began on the first of Tishrei.

Now that we understand the month of Tishrei being a biblically recognized turning of the year, we need to understand the connection between Sukkot and the reading of the Torah. First, Sukkot was a multifaceted, week-long festival that not only commemorated the wilderness experience of the Children of Israel fleeing Egypt, but it also coincided with the end of the wheat and grape harvests. The wheat harvest was complete and a new supply of wine was either freshly made or soon to be ready for consumption. Because of this, it was naturally a time of joy and celebration. Therefore, the LORD actually commanded the Children of Israel to be happy at this time. He said, “you will be altogether joyful” (Deuteronomy 16:15). This translation smooths out the original Hebrew a little too much. A more literal translation would be “you will only be joyful.” This is the only time in the entire Torah that we are commanded to be joyful. But sometimes when thousands of people have made pilgrimage to Jerusalem and are celebrating for an entire week with an abundance of food and wine, levity can override good judgment in regard to moderation, and moral propriety can fall by the wayside. What is the solution? It is to remind Israel of what God expects from His children. Therefore, the Torah is read in its entirety during this week-long celebration. Because of this, a tradition arose to begin and end the year-long Torah reading cycle during this time. The minor holiday of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah) commemorates this tradition.

How does all of this understanding apply to us? It may apply differently for different people. Maybe you’ve never commemorated Rosh Hashanah because you were told that it was a rabbinic deception to mask the true biblical new year? If that’s the case, it would be a great start to recognize Rosh Hashanah this year in some capacity. Maybe you’ve never celebrated Simchat Torah. Maybe this year you can start studying the Torah on Simchat Torah and complete it next year at the same time. Maybe you haven’t truly been joyful during this time and now realize the importance of being in charge of your feelings, especially at this time. There are many ways we can apply our new understanding. What will you do with it?