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Telling the Torah's Story, Telling Our Own
On Simchat Torah, we finish the Torah in an instant. The saga of Moses concludes. We stand ready to embrace our future, as a Jewish people, on the edge of the Promised Land.
Just as quickly, we start the Torah again. We are thrust backwards to prehistory (let alone pre-Jewish history) and the story of creation.
This ritual transition is sudden and breathtaking. There's no time for reflection. No time for retelling.
The narrative, its lessons, its legacy -- there's no time for us, at the end, to preserve them for the generations to come. Not at the end of the Torah-reading cycle, nor at the end of our life-cycle, unless we seize the opportunity to do so beforehand.
There is time along the way of life to preserve our stories, and it's our responsibility to use it.
Moses paves our way in this regard, and Jews have followed suit ever since. Moses also demonstrates how gratifying the process of telling our stories is, if we take the time.
Consider Moses at the end of the Torah, standing on Mount Nebo, on the eastern side of the Jordan. Fated to die in exile, steps away from his destination, his life's job is unfinished. It is unspeakably painful and tragic.
Or so we think.
There's a sense of loss, no question. Moses pleads with God to allow him into the land, to no avail.
As the Torah recounts: " 'Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon ... . ' But God was angry with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, 'Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!' "
Moses wants more -- to go forward, to see more fruits of his labor. And so do we.
But Moses cannot. Nor can we.
As it is written in Pirke Avot (traditionally translated as "The Ethics of Our Fathers"), lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor, which means: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither, as the text continues, are you free to desist from it.
We don't finish the work -- of the world, of our lives. But what do we do with it? Again, we can look to Moses for guidance.
For the rest of the book of Deuteronomy, he tells his story within the narrative of the people and prepares them for the tasks ahead in the land of Israel. It's his legacy statement, and leads to the greatest reward of his life -- seeing the people go off, ready to embrace the future.
Moses implores the people to follow suit with their storytelling, in gratitude, when they arrive in Israel -- in the presence of the kohanim, the priests. "Then you shall say the following before the Lord your God: 'My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt and lived there.' "
Moses provides both a model and a mitzvah for us -- for a part of the Jewish life-cycle we too often miss. To capture our past, for the future, with anava -- "humility."
Tell your story, record it, write it. Preserve it, as Moses did, for your kids and grandkids, before the time is up.
It's a message worth considering this week, on Simchat Torah, as we move (back) from one story to the next.
Rabbi Mark Robbins is a personal historian and founder of jewishlifestory (jewishlifestory.com). He served as rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford from 2002-09 before making aliyah. E-mail him at: mark @jewishlifestory.com.