Light from the Sidra

Vezot ha'Bracha

Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12;Joshua 1:1-18

I’ve never been able to get my head round Simchat Torah. Are Jewish people rejoicing because they’ve managed to finish reading the Torah? After all, it’s no mean feat to complete five books in a year; it takes me less than a month reading ten pages a day. And I certainly don’t dance after I’ve read it. Nor do I celebrate each time I finish reading the entire Bible.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would rejoice over the Torah itself because it condemns us all: ‘Cursed be he that will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them’ (Deuteronomy 27:26, Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, 1988). How can you rejoice in a legal document that curses you if you don’t keep all its terms and conditions, particularly when you know (as all of us do if we are honest with ourselves) you fall short of that ideal? It’s like a condemned prisoner jumping for joy when he hears sentence passed on him.

However, there is one profound cause for rejoicing in the Torah. Although it reveals we are all doomed for falling short of God’s requirements, it carries the good news of how we can escape the curse of Deuteronomy 27:26.

When we began to read the Torah a year ago, we noticed the promise of the ‘seed of the woman’ given to mankind by God in Genesis 3:15. Over the last year we have seen how the promise develops like a seed throughout the five books of Moses. For example, in the blessings of the tribes in Genesis 49:10, Jacob reveals that a king to whom the nations would do homage will rise from the tribe of Judah. The rabbis saw this as a promise of Israel’s messianic king.

In Numbers 24, the heathen soothsayer Balaam foresees the rise of a ‘star’ out of Jacob and a ‘sceptre’ which comes forth from Israel; a king who will dispose of Israel’s enemies. Rabbi Akiva and other sages of Israel recognised Balaam’s oracle as a prophecy of the Messiah. Because he was convinced that Shimon bar Kosiba was the Messiah, Akiva renamed him Bar Kochba: ‘Son of the Star’. Rabbi Akiva’s star, however, fell to earth. His Messiah failed to deliver the goods, as Akiva learned to his cost.

Deuteronomy 18 foretells the rise of a prophet like Moses, to whom Israel must listen. The warning suggests a likelihood that the people would reject the Prophet and his message just as they rejected Moses on several occasions.

The Torah, as is evident from the last chapter, promises more than it delivers. In Deuteronomy 34:10, a later scribe has added the remark: ‘Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses…’

At best, Simchat Torah is only a celebration of the promises of ‘the seed of the woman’, the Messianic King and the Prophet like Moses. Because most Jewish people do not believe the Messiah has come they can only rejoice in hope that he will come.

According to the Talmud, in tractates, Rosh Hashanah, Sanhedrin and Avodah Zerah, the world is to exist for 6,000 years: ‘In the first two thousand there was desolation; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years is the Messianic era…’ (Sanhedrin 97a).

Rosh Hashanah this year marked the start of 5772 which, if the Jewish calendar is correct, means the world was created 5,772 years ago. If the Talmudic sages Rabbi Katina and the Tanna debe Eliyyah were also right, Messiah should have come 1,772 years ago!

But perhaps they were not so far out. Some 2,000 years ago, the man hailed by many Jews and even more Gentiles addressed a group of people who rejected his teaching:

‘Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?’ (The Gospel According to John 7:45-47)

Had the scribe who recorded that no Prophet like Moses had risen lived a few hundred years later, he would have been able to announce that the Prophet had come. And that, in essence, is what the writers of what we call the New Testament do announce. We must decide whether we believe them.

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