Have you ever had a book you loved so much you read it over and over again? Or do you remember reading a book that was so enveloping that when you reached the final page, you were a little sad?
Our Torah is such a book.
Every time we read the Torah, we find something fresh and different that we didn’t catch before. As we learn and grow and age, different elements of the story become more or less fascinating as our experiences change. So, we keep reading it, and we make sure that we never have that moment of sad stillness of our book being complete. At Simchat Torah, which is right around the corner, we finish the last Torah reading of our scroll and then immediately begin again with a story of creation. We are all immersed in the darkness of a deep vast void for just a moment before the call for light illuminates us again.
This Friday, Cool Shul is going to host a Simchat Torah Shabbat. Then we will unroll our Torah completely, surround ourselves with every handwritten word of this incredible journey of a peoplehood, chant the very end of the Torah, and then without anything more than a call to be strong, chant the first words at the start of the scroll.
If you don’t have a spiritual home and would like to join Cool Shul for Shabbat this Friday, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll make sure you get an evite. We will be at Big Red Sun in Venice, CA for a pot-luck dinner and celebration at 6:30pm.
And now, I share with you the sermon I gave Yom Kippur morning. It is appropriate for Simchat Torah as well, for it is about literacy.
A true story…
After the conclusion of a Bar-Mitvzah service, a guest of the Bar-Mitzvah family went up to the officiating Rabbi and said, “Oh, now I get what you people are doing!” The hair on the back of the Rabbi’s neck stood straight up in the air as the phrase, “You people,” lingered in the air. He braced himself for what was to come next. “Really?” The rabbi replied. “Yes,” said the stranger, “you make sure all of your children are literate.” The Rabbi relaxed and smiled.
Originally Bar-Mitzvah was merely a recognition of legal and religious status, and a boy became a Bar-Mitzvah at age 13 years (and one day) regardless of whether or not there was any public demonstration of learning. But since the Middle Ages there has been an academic component to this rite of passage. So, without ever saying, “It’s important to learn how to read,” Judaism has stressed literacy since Rabbinical Judaism began.
In a few minutes, we are going to hear a Torah reading, and in this reading, we are at Moses’ final day of life, and we are hearing part of his final speech to the Israelites before they finally enter the land of Cana’an. Now, this speech obviously took place way before Rabbinical Judaism, however the seed for a literate peoplehood was planted right there and then.
This great story of our Torah, this story that ties the creation of the world all the way to the Israelite people’s entrance into their land while delivering 613 Mitzvot along the way, simply can’t easily be memorized. It was to be written in a scroll, and some believe Moses himself wrote the first scroll over 3000 years ago. Well, such a literary work mean nothing without people who can read it. And gathered here at this final moment with Moses were all people… young children, converts, woodcutters and water drawers, women and men, and they were all being instructed to study and know and live Torah. Clearly they were all to be able to read, and teach their children to read so they can study and know and live by these words as well. No matter who you were or what role in the community you possessed, you were to study. Literacy was not to be a skill of the privileged few alone.
This Torah portion also asks us to “Choose Life.” A Rabbi named Elliot Kukla wrote eloquently about this idea of choosing life. He said, “Our choices affect not only ourselves, but life on a global level–when we choose to drive less, spend less, and consume less, we are choosing life. And we choose life each time we lift our voices to advocate for civil rights or environmental protection.”
I believe that part of how we can “choose life” through civil rights is to do what we can to make sure that our children, and all children of the world, know how to read so they can be educated enough to make intelligent choices for themselves as they choose life. Having access to what the rest of the world believes is how we can sometimes have the strength to shout, “No more!” and be inspired to change our circumstances.
I think particularly of all of the little girls around the world who never get the opportunity to go to school, learn how to read, and experience what other girls around the world experience. In Afghanistan, for example, according to The World Bank, in 2013, the percentage of women over the age of 15 who could read and write a basic sentence was 18%. And while the men were three times that, the number was still frightfully low. We can speak of all of the tzedakah we can give and deeds we can do, but perhaps there is no greater deed than making sure someone can understand the realities of what is happening around them. How can we do that? By teaching them to read and giving them access to global content. Perhaps countries with low literacy rates that are torn apart with war, strife, social, religious and political tensions, could find more understanding in themselves and in each other if we make sure the women are educated enough to able to lead other women (and men) in demanding a more compassionate and just society.
At Rosh Hashanah, when we all committed to goals of improving ourselves, our relationships and the world, and discussed at least taking the first baby steps toward these goals by Yom Kippur, I spoke of wanting to do more for places far outside of my circle, places I know I may never even see. With this Torah portion you are about to hear, I am committing myself to giving time and energy to a charity that encourages literacy around the world, particularly with girls. The book “I Am Malala” was required summer reading for my daughter’s school, and so I am going to begin with Malala. I have already made my first donation to the Malala Fund.
I wish you all G’mar Chatimah Tova, (a positive end/seal to your year) and an easy fast. And I hope that as you all sign your names into your own books of life, that learning and education be part of your promises to yourself and to the world. Let’s remember to be grateful for the little things, like the simple gift of literacy, and let’s be on the front lines of ensuring that all peoples of the world can read.
To donate to the Malala Fund, click here: https://www.malala.org/