Rabbinic Reflections: Black fire on white fire

“Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it,” Ben Bag Bag used to say (Pirke Avot 5:22), in reference to the Torah study. This ancient rabbinic sage, a convert to Judaism, articulates something that I have found metaphorically true year after year. I never seem to be able to complete a portion of learning for even as I present what I think I know, I find something new. This year, however, when reality seems to be warped by quarantine and so much else, I find Ben Bag Bag’s words to provide a physical truth that touches me deeply.

Today is Simchat Torah, a festival holiday celebrating literally “the joy of Torah,” by finishing reading the scroll of the first five books of the Bible and starting again. We conclude with the death of Moses in Deuteronomy and immediately turn and turn the scroll back to the beginning where we read the story of Creation in Genesis. The holiday is accompanied by sweets and dancing in circles seven times like the seven days of Creation. Traditionally, we also call every person present up to the scroll for an honor, even the children who rise up together for the antepenultimate honor. The last two honors go to specially designated brides and grooms of Torah and Creation. The joy is meant to be uplifting for all.

The word is vayikra, meaning “He called,” referring to God summoning Moses. For a fuller explanation, visit http://www.ravkooktorah.org/VAYIK64.htm

Each year, I go out of my way to “raise the roof.” I dance a little wilder. I throw my children in the air and catch them. I lift and twirl a Torah scroll as part of the communal dancing. In my own nod to the season and in an attempt to message the openness of Torah learning, I hand out candy in a “treat and treating” where there are never tricks; everything on Simchat Torah should be sweet. Admittedly, much of my activity is contrived, I behave more joyously than I may feel. I do it so that others might laugh, or smile, or even enjoy; I also do it to make sure I create joy for myself. I cannot wait passively for it to come upon me during services; I have to make it.

This year, though, I won’t be at a service; I will be at home, attending a service through Zoom. I will chant some of the reading from the end of Deuteronomy. I will dance with my children. We will eat candy apples and other sweets. Strangely enough, I am more than good with that reduction in my external joy.

Why? I will be finding joy in what is missing. I will find joy in the white space. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (known as Resh Lakish) said, “The Torah given to Moses was written with black fire upon white fire” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shelamim 6:1, 49d). The black ink letters I will chant will not be my focus; I will be seeing the space around them. This year, I have become all too familiar with what is missing, what space I cannot enter, what gaps between people I cannot close; I imagine you have, too. Resh Lakish reminds us that the white space is also fire, it is also burning with holiness.

As I think about Ben Bag Bag’s charge to turn and turn the Torah, I think about all the times I have seen a scroll unrolled and held open around a room. I would highlight the famous stories, the poems, the 10 Commandments, the Priestly Blessing. While I noted the space between each book, I would not feel that space. Now I do. The white space has meaning, it reminds us that tough times are also part of the story of life, of the world, and of the turning of time again and again. We are not alone, even if we feel that way; we are bits of black fire on white fire. That is cause for joy now and in the future when we have to turn to it again.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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