January 17, 2020

Why I’m Fasting for Nessah

Destruction caused by the vandalism at Nessah. Courtesy of George Haroonian.

Today is the third day of my life on which I am experiencing (minor, tolerable, non-critical) hunger pains as a result of the Torah. No, not the Torah’s verses which the tradition understands as obligating us to fast on Yom Kippur. But rather the Torah itself. Or, to be specific, Torah scrolls. Fallen and thus debased Torah scrolls.

About nine years ago, a Torah scroll fell out of the ark at Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles during Rosh Hashanah services. It simply was not placed in its spot securely, and it fell forward, onto the ground, before the gabbai could catch it.

About two years ago, a candy-rampage at a bat mitzvah brought a wave of youngsters, in search of sweets, that literally toppled over the Torah-holder, and once again a scroll in our community fell to the ground.

Each time, following and adapting minhag/culture that is clearly not obligatory in Jewish law, our community engaged in 40 days of fasting, choosing the next 40 days on which fasting is halakhically/religiously permitted (excluding, for instance, Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, etc…), and had at least one community member sign up for each day. Each time, we completed the 40 days with a siyyum, a gathering that focused on Torah study, on venerating the very text whose toppling we were observing/mourning. While I would never, God-forbid, wish either situation upon another community, I can tell you that each time it was a meaningful communal experience.

Also each time, I experienced some internal dissonance. After all…it is just a scroll, right? And the first one was raw accident. Could not this ink-heavy parchment forgive an accident by a well-meaning gabbai without such an extensive and mildly self-flagellating ritual? And even the second time, where there was some bit of wantonness, some out-of-control culture or ethos in the community that led to the Torah’s falling, could we not find a way to educate our youngsters, and hold ourselves accountable for where we fell down–and in that way truly venerate the Torah–without the communal fast?

The questions lingered for me. They pop up every time the scroll goes around the room and most people go out of their way to plant a direct kiss, or kiss-by-tzitzit, on the holy scroll. We hover in between worthy adulation of the source of our tradition’s wisdom and connection to the divine on the one hand, and inadvertent idolatry on the other hand, where the scroll itself can take on more holiness, and be treated with more gentleness, than other real people in the room. Not to mention all of humanity, most of whom we are ignoring most of the time.

Today’s fast is different for me. I have no qualms or second thoughts about it. I, along perhaps with some of you, and with many members of the local Jewish community, am fasting in solidarity with Nessah synagogue, the Persian shul that suffered a break-in and terribly upsetting vandalism last weekend. Most of the community’s possessions, sacred objects and Torah scrolls evaded damage. But the scene that Rabbi Shofet and his community confronted when they first saw the wreckage was horrifying in its own right. Scrolls strewn across the floor, some torn or damaged. Various sacred objects broken, damaged or lost. No lives were lost, thank God. There were no injuries. There was no fire nor structural damage. This was not Kristallnacht in miniature. And yet, it is no small thing for a Jew, for a rabbi, to witness a synagogue and a Torah scroll so blatantly desecrated, particularly within days of Hanukkah, whose joy comes from our ancestors having rescued Jewish holy space from much more catastrophic desecration. It does not take bloodshed to wound the Jewish soul, and to make us wonder how secure, how accepted and how safe we really are.

As I wrote earlier in the week, these are times to avoid snap-judgments and promulgations. For sober thinking to win out over hysteria. To this day, though a culprit has been identified and arrested, it is not clear to what extent this vandalism was motivated by ugly anti-Semitism and/or hatred of the Jew. We should withhold judgment until more is known. Still, the episode has been unsettling, to say the very least, for the Nessah community, and for Jews in the neighborhood. Coming on the heels of Pittsburgh, and Poway, and Jersey City…and…and…and…the pattern is painful and portentous.

In a few minutes I will leave to join Nessah in an afternoon dedicated to the recitation of תהילים/Psalms, a collection of סליחות/penitential prayers, and then the extended Minha liturgy reserved for fast days, including Torah and Haftarah readings. I will ensure that (at least) the amount of food that I would have eaten today will be directly donated, and served personally, to homeless in our neighborhood whose bellies grumble every day, Torah-falling or not. And I will emerge from this evening’s gathering head held high, proud of my kippah and my Jewish life, my Jewish children, my Jewish students, my vibrant Jewish community. And I will emerge from this episode, I hope and pray, yet more sensitive not only to the growing fears of Jews around the country, and around the world, wondering what is in store for them…but also to the fears of so many who wonder where they will find home, who will accept them, when and how they will be able to build their lives, and live out their religious faith, in peace and freedom. There is no greater way to honor the Torah.