I’ve been around a lot of Torahs. Big Torahs. Little Torahs. Torahs with exquisite covers, with simple crushed velvet covers, or no covers at all. Torahs scribed in the Hasidic style, the Czech style, the Tzfat style, the Lithuanian style, and others I could not identify. Some Torahs were in terrific shape, like our very own commissioned Torah: so bright and clear, the black ink still gleaming whenever the light hits it. Some, like our Holocaust Torah and others, are over a hundred years old, the parchment drying out, the ink chipping away from endlessly rolling forward and backward and forward again.
I’ve never taken a Torah scroll – any of the ones I’ve held and/or read from and/or kissed with my tallit as it passed before me – for granted. I embrace the sacredness of the scroll. I understand its history and the traditions around holding it and honoring it, and reading from it. I cherish the responsibility with which I am charged to teach Torah in all its multitudinous layers.
But I am not in awe of a Torah. It doesn’t scare me to pick it up or to roll it. It’s a regular part of my life, integrated with prayerbooks and blessings.
We brought the kids outside for the opening of our Wednesday Jewish Enrichment Program (ok, I made that name up; I don’t like calling it ‘Hebrew School’ anymore. That appellation is just too fraught with negative connotations) for an inaugural session of prayer and song. Our educators, Heidi and Miryam, wanted to weave Torah learning into the experience. Since Simchat Torah (the end of Sukkot when we roll the Torah from the end back to the beginning) had just passed, we thought it would be a good time for our kids to see the Torah they would one day chant from for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
There, on a table in the middle of the TBA parking lot, I opened our beautiful Torah scroll to the very first verses of Genesis. I then asked the kids to gather around the table in concentric circles to get an up-close view. A few of the kids were nonplussed, but most of them were awestruck.
I gave them some basic facts about the scroll. They stared at the Hebrew intently. They touched the parchment, remarking on its smoothness. I saw wonder and amazement emanating from their eyes. This was very special: even with masks on, their faces were shining.
Then the questions started, lots of questions. “Rabbi! How long is the Torah when you open it all the way?” “Rabbi, what happens if you drop the Torah?” “How long does it take to write a Torah?” The questions were pragmatic, focused on the Torah as an object.
And then one of the kids asked, “Rabbi, is it real?” In all these years, no one had ever asked me that question before. I wasn’t even sure I understood what she was asking me. I asked her, “You mean, is this a real Torah, not a paper copy like the ones we give out to kids when they start their Jewish education?” No, she said, that wasn’t what she meant. “Is it real?”
It was, I supposed, a 4th grader’s invitation to a theological discussion about the origins of the Torah and who the Author – or authors – were. I tried to explain that the Torah was a series of stories written by humans who had experiences about who God is and what it means to be a Jewish person living in a big tribe with other Jewish people. I said the Torah reminds us to be the best humans we can be by showing love and kindness and understanding others.
I’m not sure the extent to which she took this explanation in or if I was answering her question at all. But I do know that it was a lovely moment of encounter and learning. I reveled in the circle of kids and teachers who were all so happy to be so close to the Torah, a real Torah.
Every year, Jews get to the end, and then we start all over again. No matter what else is happening, we follow this tradition. These are the things that define meaning. As the Universe rolls ineluctably to disorder, to have a dependable structure to hold onto until the end of time is a transcendent blessing. It makes us whole.