Thursday, December 9, 2010

The scroll of a Torah transcends time and space

The third in a series of posts on the forthcoming visit of our torah scribe
Tomorrow our torah scribe (Sofer) Neil Yerman arrives. He will speak about why he is a scribe on Friday night. Saturday morning we will study together the Jewish laws and traditions for writing a Torah. Saturday evening he will lead us in a workshop for how we can all better understand the art and sacred act of writing in Hebrew the text of Torah. Sunday morning he will do the same for the kids in the Sunday school. I think it should be a great weekend.
There is definitely a deeper message calling to us from this experience. Jewish laws abound on writing a Torah and about the procedures for what to do when an error is made or how to repair a damaged scroll. Tradition proscribes how to prepare the lambskin parchment. There are instructions for the scribe (sofer) to prepare himself (now a few women have become scribes) before actually writing.
While I have never actually written a Torah myself, I have been reading directly from Torahs for over 25 years as a congregational rabbi. Each Torah is different. Yes, it is the same text but the writing and style of the unknown scribe makes reading every Torah a different experience. Why is it special? I never complained or minded preparing during the week to read the Torah during the Sabbath services. To me reading the Torah is a privilege. When my eyes gaze down upon the letters, I am reading through the eyes of the unknown sage who wrote this Torah sometimes hundreds of years ago. I am seeing the words through their eyes, in fact, I encounter god in that parchment. I feel the act of reading Torah transports me to the continuum of sacred history all the way back to Moses and Sinai.
I only wish we could succeed in inspiring every boy and girl to experience that revelation when they read the Torah for their b’nai mitzvah. Yet, maybe I am selling our kids short. Maybe at some level they do get it and grasp on an emotional level how they become a link in the chain of learning the sacred Scriptures.
I am hoping that our weekend will enable our people in Hilton Head to open their eyes to the way a Torah can come to life. Will the letters enter their hearts and will our people enter inside the  spirit of the letters?
We live in a world of consuming things rapidly. We text. We email. We watch TV. Everything we do leads us to developing a short attention span. What happened to the culture that taught us to savor a word or a sentence? We study scripture on our computers, I Phones and Droids. That is just the way we are going. Yet, there are still some tastes of the ancient world that exist despite the digital world. If we leave the comfort of our computer space and join a community when we read the Torah at communal prayer, we can actually absorb that ancient aura, embrace the heart and minds of our ancient forbearers who bequeathed us that history and realize that God’s outstretched hand and ours too are forever bound together.
We  talk about  Judaism too often as only an ethnic identity. Jewish survival are sacred phrases in our faith tradition. Do not forget that the scribe gives us a Torah that is the ultimate core of who we are. It is a facsimile of the first written word, regardless of how we interpret Scripture, from our encounter with God.
I can read a biblical text in a book or in a digital format. Intellectually I know it is sacred. But none of those contexts can move my soul spiritually like when I read it from the original parchment. That is the gift of reading every Torah, beholding the tapestry of the past, present and future becoming one in the mind and the soul.
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Torah Scroll tells its own story

 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.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

writing the ancient texts in the digital world

The upcoming week is a big one at our congregation. I am so pleased that we will be hosting a real Sofer a Torah scribe. This is one of two visits that Neil Yerman will be making to our community. The facts are that due to a generous donation from a congregant we were able with Neil’s assistance to find and restore a Torah for our community. This would bring us to three functioning Torah in our holy ark. The essence of his visit and his presence is to teach us this weekend what does it mean to be a scribe? How can we learn how to draw some of the Hebrew letters? What are some of the Jewish laws on writing a Torah? We will be addressing these questions over the course of the weekend. I am totally fired up about Neil’s  visit.
The interesting thing is to contrast his ancient art and sacred mitzvah of writing holy books with our emphasis on the digital world. We are all focused on creating the most effective container of information such as the kindle at Amazon or the IPAD at Apple which contains so much information. We can practically carry around our own libraries with us wherever we go!
I don’t see these two worlds in conflict with each other. There is enough room for both of them to survive and thrive. But I just don’t want to see us loose perspective and value in the ancient craft of writing holy books whether that is a purim megillah or a Torah or a mezuzah or tephillin. We need to slow down sometimes and savor the parchment  (yes,  I am aware of saving trees!). Maybe that is something we should  be thinking a lot more about in our lives. Slowing down and reading a book for insight and wisdom or just relaxation is a beautiful thing.
The digital world has no texture as compared to any book let alone a scroll. Life is all about the texture and the feel of what we do. It is not black or white but shades of grey.  That is my personal perspective. I would love to have an IPAD, but, not at the cost of giving up my books or writing a handwritten note with a fountain pen. These instruments of the non-digital world need to remain.   We need the texture of life and its tools as well.
Religion is all about the visual and those things we can touch with our hands and our talit(prayer shawl).  I would hate to confine God to digital programming.
More to come on writing and the religious texture.