PARSHAT V’ZOT HAB’RACHA
THE SPIRAL OF LIFE
“For all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:12)
I am sure everyone knows the haunting song “The Circle of Life,” composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice. It was the opening and closing number of Disney’s The Lion King, both the original movie and the hit Broadway show. “It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all, Through despair and hope, through faith and love. ‘Til we find our place, on the path unwinding, In the circle, the circle of life.”
We see the circle in the show. In the beginning the baby lion is held up before the animals, and then at the end the lion of the next generation is held up. The cycle continues. And yet, is this image of unending, unchanging cycles a good thing? The pagan view of the world is one of unending cycles, where reality is repeated over and over.
This view of unending cycles is the pessimistic view of the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, which we read in synagogue this week for Shmini Atzeret. To quote part of the book, “One generation goes, another comes. The sun rises, the sun sets, and glides back to where it rises. .. Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:4, 5, 9). The poetry is beautiful but also exceedingly pessimistic. Life is a cycle that repeats itself without getting better.
The notion of an unending cycle is also found in our Torah reading. On Simchat Torah (the second day of Sh’mini Atzeret, in Israel the same day), we finish reading the Torah. We read the end of Deuteronomy. But immediately we begin reading the Torah once again, starting Genesis. The last word of the Torah is Yisrael “Israel,” ending with the Hebrew letter lamed. The first word of the Torah is Bereishit “In the Beginning,” start with the Hebrew letter beit. Since the Torah is an unending cycle, we can put the last and first letter together, spelling the Hebrew word Lev “Heart.” Heart is at the center of the ongoing cycle of Torah.
But is an unending cycle negative, as hinted in Ecclesiastes? People sometimes ask me whether I get bored with the repetition of the Torah readings year in and year out. Is the unending cycle of Torah readings tedious? The answer is that the Torah reading is never the same. Every year I have new thoughts and new insights. I have grown and changed, I have read more, and there is always something new to learn. Each year I try to come up with new insights as I write and speak about the weekly Torah portion.
This is also true for the Circle of Life. It is not an unending cycle as the pagans taught. It is probably much closer to a spiral, circling around but also rising up. Each year we learn and grow. That is where the Bible breaks with paganism; it speaks of growth and change. As Ecclesiastes teaches, a generation may come and a generation may go. But each generation has learned a bit more. Perhaps in The Lion King, the new generation will be a little better than the old generation. Perhaps it is the spiral of life. Life is a circle as the pagans taught. But life is also linear, as we grow and change. Perhaps Elton John and Tim Rice should have written “The Spiral of Life.” May we continue to grow as we begin a cycle of Torah readings once again.