Simchat Torah – Our Last Dance with the Temple Emanu-El Torah

A small and slender woman danced the opening cross-steps of the hora. A mother and her eight-year-old son did high kicks while holding tightly to the etzim, the Torah’s wooden posts. The tallest man in the room whirled and turned with her high in his arms, his face glowing with affection.

Our Temple’s president, Judah Malin, later told me that when he carefully placed our scroll in the arms of a Christian friend of mine who is now confined to a wheelchair, her face was alive with light and excitement.

Each had taken a turn holding our Torah in their arms, and for the very last time.

Our Torah is beloved by everyone in our congregation. We have many Christian friends who love her with just as much honor and respect as any Jew.

I have never seen it fail: Whenever I brought our Torah to a church community and spoke about secrets of her especially small or large letters or the noticeable change in calligraphy as one portion of her parchment gave way to the next, those with me were moved to smiles, to joy, even to tears.

There is something exquisite in the moment you know this fact for certain: Revelation comes in many, many forms. True revelation comes from light and joy and it transcends everything – gender and sexual identity, ethnicity, faith tradition, belief systems.

In the end, it must be about love. We were all meant to be about love.

Our Torah is a work of love and an encounter with love.

We struggle with its prohibitions and its commandments. Some are kind and some are incomprehensible. We are challenged by its beautiful and terrible passages. We worry over frightening scenes and are comforted by stories of compassion.

We read tales of God trying to understand humanity and humanity searching for God.

In the Mekhilta de R. Yishmael, a midrash likely composed in the mid- to late-third century C.E., Rabbi Yishmael writes:

‘They encamped in the Wilderness’ (Ex. 19:2): The Torah was given in a free place. Because if the Torah had been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, ‘You have no share in it.’ But because it was given in the wilderness, publicly and openly, in a place free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it.

Avoda Zara compares the non-Jew who loves Torah to the High Priest.

R. Meir used to say, ‘Whence do we know that even an idolator who studies the Torah is equal to a High Priest? From the following verse: Ye shall therefore keep My statutes and My ordinances which, if a man do, he shall live by them (Leviticus 18:5). It does not say, “If a Priest, Levite, or Israelite do, he shall live by them,” but “a man”; here, then, you can learn that even a heathen who studies the Torah is equal to a High Priest!’

My congregation does not fear placing our Torah into the arms of a non-Jewish spouse or partner; they are part of our community, too. I do not hesitate to have my dear Christian friends hold her either – they love her and revere her.

It was to be the last time our congregation saw our first Torah unfurled. She is headed for retirement in a little more than one month. We are, with all that we have, raising the funds for a new Torah in part to do our first Torah this honor. She has served us well and with great grace. Our Torah represents Jewish communities utterly destroyed in the Holocaust, and our obligation to remember them.

And yet: She has had the courage to stand for the reconciliation, the understanding, the love that human beings of different faiths and beliefs can hold for one another.

May we be blessed with that kind of courage – each and every one of us.

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A Survivor Must Rest: The Temple Emanu-El Torah

Well over a century ago, a scribe in Macedonia rose early in the morning to pray. He went to the mikveh, prayed again, and immersed himself in living waters. He walked back to his workshop, mixed the ink, sharpened his quills, and began to write: Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. When all began, God created the heavens and the earth.

Well over a century ago, a scribe in a Lithuanian town rose early in the morning to pray. He went to the mikveh, prayed again, and immersed himself in living waters. He walked back to his workshop, mixed the ink, sharpened his quills, and began to write: Vayomer Elohim el Moshe: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. And God said to Moses, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”

A scribe in a little shtetl in Moravia. A scribe somewhere, perhaps, in Germany. One wrote in Vellish script. The other, in Ari. One had a strong right-handed tendency.

At some point, my congregation’s Torah was pieced together from remnants of many Torahs whose several parts date back as far as the late 1800’s. The people who heard this Torah read all over Europe were decimated by the Final Solution. Few of them survived the Shoah.

Somehow, parts of their Torah did.

Each time I read from the Torah, I pause between the time the blessing is chanted and I begin. I am remembering – invoking, really – the Jews from across Europe who knew and revered and loved this Torah for decades. Jews in Macedonia, Moravia, Germany, Lithuania: I imagine them around me, joining me at the Torah.

Our Torah has her name from a more recent past. She is the Temple Emanu-El Torah. She came to Temple Or Olam when that congregation of Weldon, North Carolina, had to close its doors. The first time we read from our Torah was at my son, Erik’s bar mitzvah. Many who knew the Torah came to Concord for the service and watched as the heart of their congregation was transplanted into ours.

For nine years our children have chanted from this Torah. Our people have raised this Torah high for us all to see. Some of our women first held a Torah scroll after I put this one into their arms.

Our Torah, which is mostly between 100 and perhaps 125 years old, has been pristinely restored for a second time. She came home just before the New Year. In her old age, she has the radiance Sarah must hadwhen she learned she was pregnant. Her letters sparkle, her parchment is clear.

Nine years ago, when our sofer, Neil Yerman, first restored our Torah, he told me she was not a healthy scroll. Who knows how she survived the conflagrations in Europe? Torahs, we now know, need to be kept in climate-controlled conditions, tightly wound, surrounded by cedar and humidity absorbing granules.

Still, we hoped she might have thirty more years of life to give.

Scrolls are organic things. They are made of the things of this world. They live, they die, and when the latter occurs and they absolutely can no longer be maintained, they are ritually buried.

Over the last century, our Torah has suffered irreparable damage. The parchment is unyielding to quill and ink. She is no longer able to hold the letters. Many that Neil has lovingly refinished will chip and flake off her surface within this very year. Her beauty cannot be sustained if we rely on her; she cannot be kept kosher for reading without ongoing and expensive attention.

We need to care for her now as we would an elder. We need to hold her tenderly and let her rest. At this point, we must face this fact: My little congregation must now fund her retirement by raising the money for a new Torah, and that means many, many thousands of dollars.

All these years I have chanted from this Torah conscious of all the people who loved her and knew her in her youth. Their communities were decimated and their people slaughtered. I have made my chanting into another way to say Kaddish for them, to mourn them and to honor them and – most importantly – to remember them.

I will need to bring them with me to the new scroll that I will read from someday. I do not yet know how I will do that.

On Rosh Hashanah Shacharit, I broke a vow. I had never made any fundraising pitch during these Days of Awe. I never thought I would.

And yet, even the smallest community has two essential obligations. To be able to bury its dead with honor, and to keep and maintain a Torah scroll. Every community must be responsible for making sure that our heart beats. That heart is the Torah.

I do not fear to ask wherever I go. I do not fear to ask here, either. Please help us spread the word by letting others know our story. Perhaps they will reach out.

If you would like to help our community raise the funds we will need for a new Torah, please send your tax-deductible contribution to the following address:

Treasurer
Temple Or Olam, Treasurer
PO Box 362
Huntersville, NC 28070-0362

May you all be blessed with a healthy and happy New Year.

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