This week we step into a new Torah cycle, and like with everything new there is potential, and excitement. A fresh start. Though the funny thing about Torah’s cyclical nature is that we have been here before, in some ways it is old news. So then, what potential is there really in starting a new cycle? During the high holidays we hear so many messages about allowing ourselves to change, to use this time to think in new and different ways. This then contrasts against a celebration of Simchat Torah, where we start to read Torah over again, exactly, and precisely the same. The messages can be confusing. Where is there room for opportunity to change when we are required to ritually act the same? I think this is a leading question, and what marking this ending and beginning really does is allow ourselves to do what we Jews do best: to make new meaning. To use our past year of experience and emotion, another year of spiritual growth, to help us read these texts though new eyes. A new chance to land on a teaching that resonates with our lives now, with who we are today. The start of a new Torah cycle gives us an opportunity to approach our texts differently.
Even within the language of the creation story we are encouraged to open ourselves to the many meanings in our world. In literature, there is a rhetorical device called merism. Merism is a figure of speech that combines two contrasting things to refer to the whole. For example, when you say “I searched high and low” we know you are saying you looked everywhere. Or “flesh and bone” refers to the whole body by describing its parts while we fill in the rest. This device, merism, also exists in Torah.
In her article “Transgender Jews: An Introduction,” scholar Susan Weidman Schneider writes that we can see this throughout Bereishit. Gd creates "heaven and earth" (Gen. 1:1) to distinguish the difference of human world and divine world. Light and darkness (Gen.1:5) lead to the days of the week, dry land and water (Gen. 1: 10) refers to the whole earth.
Weidman Schneider also argues that it’s possible to apply merism to the creation of the first human: “male and female God created them” (Gen. 1:27) - "male and female" or anyone in between. The use of merism creates a vastness, an openness, a potential. It also creates a sense of inclusivity. All experiences are encompassed between the parts. If this story was more descriptive, it would leave us less room to find our ourselves, our world, our identities, and our curiosities in the text.
If we agree that Bereishit uses merism to describe everything in between, then we can also see the potential which the creation story gives to us to start our year. We may return to something old, but the multiplicity of meaning and the multiplicity of selves we can find in Torah are new. What we notice changes depending on how we look. Torah is not just two sides of a scroll; it is everything and everyone in between.