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Moving (Forward) In Circles

What is it about the circular motion that seems to define this season?
Rabbi Yosef kahanov

Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, was for a time, a disciple of Reb Menachem of Vitebsk (until the latter left Russia for the Holy Land in 1777).

One year on Simchas Torah, before Hakkafos (the circular procession for which the holiday of Simchas Torah is renowned), the entire synagogue was waiting for Reb Menachem Mendel to begin the recitation of the preceding verses, beginning with Atoh Hareisa. After a long unexplained silence, R' Menachem approached R' Shneur Zalman and said: "I perceive a hundred different ways to interpret this passage, but I cannot translate them into practice. I would hence prefer to refrain from reciting it."

Reb Shneur Zalman protested: "But a person can never stand at the place which his eyes behold; for when he reaches that point he will see even farther. This is the typical order of things. So Rebbe, when you have realized these hundred ideas in practice, you will perceive yet more ideas and insights, and there will be no end to the matter."

The Rebbe was quite pleased with this answer, and at once proceeded to recite: “Atoh Hareisa. . .”

The month of Tishrei encompasses the entire spectrum of the human experience. As the month steadily progresses, we move from the state of introspection of Rosh Hashanah; to the state of emotion of Yom Kippur; to the state of action associated with the holiday of Sukkos. The action associated with the holiday of Sukkos includes the building of booths – known as Sukkos – for outdoor dwelling, as well as the binding and bringing together of the four species in a special ritual.

The holiday of Sukkos is also associated with a peculiar circular rhythm. This phenomenon is introduced subtly with one circle around the Bimah each day of Sukkos while sporting the Lulav and Esrog in hand. The one circle soon increases to seven on Hoshana Rabba. It then erupts into full-fledged dancing, round and round, on Simchas Torah. The circular dancing can last for hours.

What is it about the circular motion that seems to define this season? And why do we celebrate the very conclusion of this lofty month with a flurry of circular movements that seem to take us to the same place we began? Shouldn't the New Year be symbolized by forward motion rather than cyclical?

Not only do we move in circles on the day of Simchas Torah, we seem to read in circles as well. Upon the conclusion of the dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah, we actually unfurl the Torah scroll and read the final portion of V'Zos HaBrachah, completing thereby the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings. Then in true circular fashion we start all over again, as we read Beraishis from the beginning of the Torah. Why this peculiar sequence?

The joining together of Deuteronomy and Genesis symbolizes the eternal cycle of Torah which has neither beginning nor end – the Torah's infinite quality. Before we can congratulate ourselves on having completed an entire cycle of Torah study, the first book is started again, reminding us of the task ahead – that the need to study the Torah remains just as if it were newly transmitted.

A similar custom, among students of Talmud, is to read the first line of the subsequent chapter or volume immediately upon completing a given chapter or volume. Scholars hardly look back on a year of assiduous study with self pride and contentment. Rather, they remain focused on the ever-expanding universe of knowledge that lies ahead.

The scholar, it seems, has yet to finish anything. In fact – as goes the aphorism: "The conclusion of [true] knowledge is the wisdom that one truly lacks in knowledge," (R' Yidaya Hapnini). The more the true scholar learns the more there is to know. For knowledge, it appears, begets the desire for more knowledge.

This notion holds true of our attitude regarding our accomplishments in the month of Tishrei. Of course, having prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with intense passion and fervor, we feel accomplished – we know that our Tshuvah has been graciously accepted and that we have been inscribed and sealed in the book of life and blessings.

For this we are truly thrilled and grateful. But the latter does not mean that we stop to gloat in our extraordinary achievement while we pat ourselves on the back. Nor do we take a break to contemplate new goals and objectives in life.

We are told that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch (the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe) once, as a youngster, approached his father (Rabbi Shalom DovBer) the day after Yom Kippur and asked: "What now?" His father replied, "Now, especially, we must repent."

The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson) explains the meaning of this peculiar phenomenon as follows: Proceeding Yom Kippur, when every Jew is on an extremely high level, repentance is required anew regarding matters that were not considered sins on our previous level. Therefore the day after Yom Kippur, when we find ourselves on a whole new level, "We must especially repent."

Unlike the Olympic gold medalist who may bask in the glory of his few moments of fame for the rest of his life, or the Harvard graduate who, the day after his graduation, forever leaves his academic environment behind to begin his profession or career in business, the day after Simchas Torah it is Torah all-over-again, much as the day after Yom Kippur it's Teshuvah all-over-again.

Does this mean that Judaism has us going in circles our entire lives? Not quite. It would help to think of the Jewish circular routine, not as a never ending religious merry-go-round, but rather as a continuous spiral, whose one end is planted in the ground below and the other rooted in heaven above.

True, we do move in circular motions, but we are continually moving upward – higher and higher towards our infinite Divine source.

So, this Simchas Torah, as you dance in circles with the Torah scroll in hand, close your eyes and feel yourself ascend the eternal spiritual spiral.

As you envision the every-day grind of another year and all its familiar challenges and routines – when you start to feel the “Cheshvan Blues” coming-on, remember the lesson of Simchas Torah:

While it may all seem old and familiar, Life is not déjà vu all over again. The reality is that every moment is a new creation which provides new and unique opportunity. Life is a spiral that lifts us higher and higher towards our spiritual objective and source.

21 Tishrey 5769