A story. The morning of June 18th 1999 I stood in front of the ark at my congregation in Sacramento. The sanctuary of the congregation was filled with smoke. The pews were scorched. The piano was destroyed. The president of the congregation stood beside me. We wanted to open the ark but the fire chief was afraid to let us do so lest there be a bomb planted inside the ark. Yes, that was the morning after the terrorists firebombed our congregation. That was the morning the president and I opened the ark and removed the holy Torahs from the ark and in a procession of mourning left the sanctuary carrying them in our hands.
Luckily they were not damaged. The 5000 books in the library were destroyed along with the library itself. Yet the terrorists did not succeed in destroying the Torahs. I think today about what the sacred texts mean in those moments of great tragedy. I remember how two brothers' hatred of Judaism and Jews propelled them to torch our campus and two other synagogues along with a planned parenthood center in one unholy night . I think about what survival means to Jews. I think about how many of us over history have carried Torahs from houses of worship that were burned from fires of hatred.
Bringing a Torah scribe to our congregation in Hilton Head is a beautiful thing. It is to be a cherished moment in our temple’s history. In my own mind I revisit a sad memory but one that makes me resolute on why we must cherish the sacred Torah and other ritual objects in our keep. The lambskin parchment that every scribe writes the holy words upon serves as a testament to our enduring spirit. Whenever I hold a Torah in front of the congregation during the service and process into the congregation with it, I derive tremendous satisfaction when I see the eyes of children and grandparents alike who touch it with their prayerbooks and prayer shawls and kiss the velvet covering that protects the Torah scrolls. I see the utter joy in the faces of the congregation. Even after all these years I derive such nachas(satisfaction) when I process or accompany a 13 year old bar or bat mitzvah student holding it as part of their rite of passage into adulthood. (Can we imagine one day the kids will be carrying their IPADs instead? God forbid).
A text is sacred for many reasons. It is holy in Judaism because the words come from God. It is holy because they represent the historic experience of our people encountering the word of God. The scroll is holy because it is written by the hand of humans in partnership with the divine. It is holy because we can derive so many interpretations as to what the words and the ideas therein mean to each generation that asks the question how God’s words speak to me.
I embrace the sadness of that day in 1999 as I do all the times we have lost scrolls due to hatred. But that does not in any way detract from my spirit as I watch the joy of seeing a child embrace and touch the torah for the first time or when a senior can proudly wrap their arms around the scroll as if it were their own child. That is the beauty of the text. It tells its own story and it reverberates a story into all who see it.