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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Stand By Your Blessing

 “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.
Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.
Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”
Pirkei Avot / Sayings of Our Fathers
5:22

Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing in the Torah,” is an annual love fest demonstrating our abiding affection for the challenging, beautiful, sweet scroll of our stories.

We have a special tradition for Simchat Torah at Temple Or Olam. As we roll the Torah back to the beginning, I ask members of our congregation to stand by the column of their choice in the book of Genesis. Then I look. I scan the column for the blessing they have chosen, though they have no idea where it is.

To be frank, I don’t either.

Nevertheless, some of the letters shine and glisten at me; some words emerge from the parchment. The letters of Torah turn and turn and turn again. I read them: They are telling me something about the soul before me.

This past year, a young man in our congregation stood before a dry text indeed. One person begat, the next did the same. I read the series, despairing of message or purpose. Shem begot Arpachshad who begot Shelah who begat Eber. Sixteen verses later, I read the final lines introducing Terah and his sons: Avram, Nahor, and Haran.

I started grinning.

“What?” asked the young man.

I looked up at him. I’ve known him for many years, and watched with increasing joy as he has taken one firm step after another toward this year’s planned beit din. There, I know, three rabbis will surely and joyfully acknowledge what we in our congregation already know (he’s Jewish!).

He had chosen the column that introduces Avram’s birth.

What did Avram do? Take his heart in his hands and journey towards a different life. What is this young man doing? He is taking his heart in his hands and journeying towards a different life.

I went along the table. A young teenage girl stood by a column that began with Sarah’s invitation for everyone to laugh with her, to share her joy at the miracle of Isaac’s birth. This young girl, I know, was born only after many long years of painful waiting and hoping on her parents’ part. “You are a particular blessing,” I say. “Ask your parents to tell you the whole story sometime if they haven’t yet.” Her mom is standing nearby. She laughs. Like Sarah?

I moved to a congregant in her seventies who has recently been celebrating her freedom – after many decades – from a certain family member’s demands. She pointed to the scroll, to the passage that describes how Joseph’s family sold him into slavery. “That’s my story,” she says, when I tell her.

Torah is so rich I could probably find something in every column for every congregant. Laws of probability, coincidences – you can throw them all at me while I try to explain how magical it feels to discover Torah within the souls of my congregants.

Torah is terrible, rich and frightening. It is tender and it is violent. It is often perplexing. It is real. It is human.

Maybe this ritual of ours is really about how much I love my congregation. Since I know the people of Temple Or Olam, I can read their stories in the ones before me on the scroll. Sarah and Jacob and Joseph are Stacey and Nick and Susan.

The unfurling parchment is ancient and magical.  I turn it, and turn it, and turn it again, looking for those I love, those before me, those about me.

We are black letters on white parchment, the strokes and lines of a human endeavor, of human striving. Everything is in that.

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