Jewish learning is a tradition of constant beginnings without any end in sight. At the end of Succoth, Jews over the world will be completing the reading of Torah in their synagogues and immediately starting all over again. This is a most remarkable tradition which takes place on Simchat Torah. Instead of being satisfied with this last reading, they conclude that they really did not read it well enough and that there is a need to read it once more. Taking into account that this kind of re-reading has already gone on for thousands of years and that there are no indications it will end in the future, one wonders when Jews will ever complete their reading of the Torah.
They won’t. The message is clear: When it comes to the learning of Torah there are only perpetual beginners. The text may have a beginning but it has no end. Its divinity is rooted in the world of eternity and consequently one cannot do anything other than embark on its beginning without any hope of finishing it. Layers of meaning will constantly emerge, new colors will appear and an ongoing revelation will manifest itself.
But it is not only the study of Torah which is never ending. It is also true about all other sacred Jewish texts. When ending a tractate in the Mishna or the Talmud, Jews gather for a festive celebration but while doing so they read a text which in fact tells them that they had better start all over again. This is called the “hadran alakh”, “we will return to you” prayer. It states: “May we return to you, tractate so and so, because we know we have not even started to understand you.” The celebration is therefore not so much about finishing the last tractate but about the knowledge that it will be studied again. Finishing gives reason for thankfulness, having the opportunity to start again is an excitement and requires an inaugural party.
This stands in sharp contrast with modern times and its secular intellectual goals. When studying books and texts the main question in the minds of the students is when they will finish them. The attitude is one which reveals a preoccupation with getting matters over with, completion.
Not so Judaism. It protests against the culture of the need to end. It runs against the current because it knows that completing a text is only the beginning. A new encounter will be necessary, because the last time we did not even start. True, not every text is open to such an approach. Some texts do not hold the potential to start again. One reading has made them old and outdated.
But if a |Torah scholar considers himself to have finished, he is literally at an intellectual dead end and has not understood anything of the Torah. Not even its beginning, because there is no beginning without the knowledge that there is no end.