By Shlomo Riskin
Oftentimes, things and people are not what they appear to be. Even our most profound statement of faith, “Sh’ma Yisrael” [Deut. 6:4], is recited while covering one’s eyes with one’s hand, so that we not be distracted by the illusory nature of what we see around us. Indeed, Rashi’s explanation of this verse – that we live in an incomplete and imperfect world in which God is not yet universally accepted – reinforces this point.
The world of God is the world of the inner dimension, the soul rather than the face of the human being; the inner reality rather than the mask for the outside world. In fact, the entire High Holy Day period, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Simchat Torah, is dedicated to the inner self and to the essential soul of things. The piercing sound of the shofar resonates with the inner cry of the human being; the liturgical poems remind us that the Almighty “searches the inner feelings of every human being;” and we express on this day our deepest fears as well as our innermost hopes.
On Yom Kippur, each of us stands before the Almighty bereft of our physical trappings and even minimal bodily comforts such as food and drink. It is our inner soul that stands before the Almighty ready to be purified.
In a similar vein, it may be said that the Jewish calendar establishes two celebrations for two aspects of the Torah – or, if you will, a separate celebration for each one of our two Torahs, represented by the two sets of tablets we received in the desert.
The festival of Shavuot (Weeks) marks the Revelation at Sinai when God first presented to us His Torah in the form of the first tablets. This was an external Torah, given amidst an “external extravaganza” of thunder and fire and sounds which were to be seen by the eye [Ex. 20:15].
In contrast, when Moses received the second set of tablets – on Yom Kippur – he did so this time in the midst of Divine silence and in the lonely splendor of intimacy with the Divine. The Sages teach that only the second tablets contained the Oral Law [Midrash, Shemot Rabba, 46:1], which is actually the innermost dimension of Torah that can only be heard and extracted by those who are privy to the inner voice of the Torah’s secrets.
It is not by accident that the first tablets were broken, whereas the second are eternal and indestructible. It is not coincidental that 40 days after the first Revelation, the people of Israel worshipped the golden calf, whereas the second Torah remains our eternal symbol of Divine love and forgiveness.
These two Torahs, the outer and the inner, are expressed in the K’tiv and Kri of the Torah as we experience it. The K’tiv literally means the “writing”, the black letters as they appear in the Torah Scroll; the Kri is the way our tradition mandates that we read those letters, sometimes in a different way than we would expect. One might say that the K’tiv is the external Torah and the Kri its internal counterpart. On Simchat Torah we celebrate the inner Torah, the Oral Torah, the “Kri”.
On this closing day of the High Holiday period, we read of the death of Moses. Moses’ life also has a “K’tiv” and “Kri”, an external form and an internal essence.
On the one hand, we might conclude that Moses was a tragic personality: he began his life amidst the wealth and fame of Pharaoh’s palace, a veritable prince in Egypt, but concluded it while wandering in the desert, without even a solid roof over his head. His goal had been to take the Israelites into the Promised Land, but at the crucial moment of truth, they failed to rise to the Divine challenge. Finally, after a series of quarrelsome rebellions and 42 different temporary destinations, Moses departs from his people and the physical world without even a cemetery monument to mark his memory!
The truth, however, resides in the “Kri” of Moses’ life, the internal essence that follows us and that we follow to this day. It was Moses who spoke to God face-to-face, as it were, and led the transformation of a slave nation into one with a relationship with the Divine. Even if Moses’ words were not always heard by his own generation, his message reverberates throughout all the Jewish generations.
We celebrate the Torah even as we read of Moses’ death because for us Moses never died; his grave is unmarked because through the words of the Torah that he communicated to us, he lives on. Moses in essence resides in his inner message, the Torah by which we live and from which we study is his eternal legacy. It is this Torah over which we rejoice on Simchat Torah.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.