November 15, 2019

When the Torah Opens Our Hearts

To welcome new families to our religious school, we bring the Torah to their homes, parading through the rooms. A blessing of nourishment in the kitchen. Communication in the family room. Comfort and affection in the bedroom. We open the Torah on the dining table and show children the words they will chant when they are 13, when they’ve barely left childhood and hardly know who they are.

It may seem strange to take that which is so sacred out of its pristine sanctuary and bring it to a world of domestic untidiness. However, Torah goes there on its own. This book we extol on Simchat Torah with dancing and singing has something to say to soldiers about packing a spade with which to bury their excrement during war (Deuteronomy 23:13). It concerns itself with menstruation, skin ulcers and fallen sheaves. It speaks of blood, sex and death. It doesn’t shy from humanity’s appetites and lusts; in fact, Torah assures humankind that in spite of the “sin that crouches at your door” (Genesis 4:7), “you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

When I was in rabbinical school, studying Torah night and day, I suddenly became frightened. What if this wasn’t meant for me? One Thursday, I was supposed to lift the Torah. I hesitated. How many Jews believe a woman shouldn’t carry the Torah? What if they were right? I loved Torah and I feared God. I wept to a male Conservative rabbi. “I don’t want to touch something I’m not supposed to,” I said. “I want to be a good Jew. But I’m impure.”

He took no pity on me. He said sternly, “If you think you have the power to contaminate the Torah, then you are incredibly arrogant.”

And with that, I was permitted. The Torah, while about our flaws, is far and away above our flaws.

With Simchat Torah, we complete an ancient Jewish recovery program. The program began with Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of our creation, for in order to improve ourselves, we first need to decide we are worth the effort. Then we move through the Ten Days of Repentance, making amends to those we have wronged, to reach Yom Kippur, a spiritual summit from which we take stock of our experiences and chart our next steps.

Then we build a sukkah, hammering together a loose, temporary construction. Yom Kippur is dedicated to the imperfections of character, and Sukkot to the imperfections of body. We move from an exalted dream of the possible to the hard and often futile work of realizing the dream. Sukkot teaches that everything is vulnerable to collapse. It is the festival of the wilderness, and despite the battles, rebellions, hunger and thirst, we are explicitly commanded to be joyful.

The “program” culminates in Simchat Torah, the holiday upon which we celebrate reaching the final chapter of Torah, only to reroll the scroll right back to the beginning. The story ends before we arrive, just before the Israelites cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

So, what are we celebrating? The opportunity to start again? But why celebrate going back to the beginning when we haven’t even completed the journey?

The wisdom of Simchat Torah is to recognize and elevate the journey, and not the arrival. The destination of our lives is uncertain. We set goals, trying to anticipate storms, when in fact, all we do know is that none of us gets out of here alive.

The Hebrew word for ark, aron, means “cabinet” and “casket.” On the desert journey, one aron carried the covenant and the shattered fragments of the first tablets. A second aron carried the remains of Joseph. Shards and bones.

At the beginning of our Kol Nidre service at Temple Isaiah, when we open the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, it is empty. A hollow, dark rectangle. A grave. The Torah scrolls are carried in silent procession from the back. The heart is restored to its chest. At the closing of Yom Kippur, during Neilah, we pass our Torah scrolls throughout the entire congregation, an usher at the end of each aisle helps, and a thousand people hold a Torah against their hearts.

The day after we held the Torah so tight this year, the deadliest shooting massacre in modern U.S. history was perpetrated in Las Vegas, with 58 people dead and nearly 500 injured. 

The wisdom of Simchat Torah is to recognize and elevate the journey, and not the arrival. 

How is it possible to dance with the Torah now? To observe z’man simchateinu, a “time of our joy”? How do we hold tightly to a holy scroll at a moment of such darkness?

Simchat Torah is a celebration, yes, but it is also a protest. It is a spiritual resistance. Torah champions a radical idea: One God. A universal moral code of conduct. The opening words, “In the beginning,” are already a polemic against history being cyclical and fate being predetermined. Genesis unfolds into Exodus, the inspiration behind nearly every revolution against bondage and injustice.   

Simchat Torah is a celebration of the power to protest, even against God. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Torah asks (Genesis 18:25). Torah even names its protagonist Yisrael, “One who wrestles with God and with man and prevails” (Genesis 32:29).

In the short story “Yosl Rakover Talks to God,” Zvi Kolitz writes: “I love [God]. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life — and the more we die for this way of life, the more immortal it is!” In times of darkness, when we question and even rail against God the most, we still hold fast to our Torah.

We are the inheritors of our biblical ancestors’ audacious optimism when they packed timbrels as they rushed out of Egypt, with the faith that, no matter how long the journey, good will triumph and we will sing and dance.

We celebrate Simchat Torah not because we are in denial of the darkness, but because the very act of celebrating ignites a spark and edges us closer to redemption.

There is a Chasidic story of a boy who asks his father for an apple but is refused. The boy quickly recites the blessing over eating fruit. Not wanting his son to be guilty of reciting a blessing in vain, the father gives him the apple. Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet used this story to teach that we celebrate with joy despite a world of darkness, because by putting blessing into the world, we necessitate a good response. He taught the Chasidic maxim: “Simchah breaks through barriers.” He wrote, “We can draw an analogy between this maxim and the fact that Mashiach, too, is referred to as ‘The one who breaks through’ (Micah 2:13). This comes to teach us that simchah, joyfulness, has the power to break through the walls … and hasten the coming of Mashiach!”

We celebrate Simchat Torah not because we are in denial of the darkness, but because the very act of celebrating ignites a spark and edges us closer to redemption.

My favorite Simchat Torah was in the mountain city of Safed, the people spilling out onto the crooked streets singing and stamping, the Torah sailing above as they marched past crumbly buildings pocked with bullet holes. Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel live!

We set our goals on Yom Kippur. But try as we might, there is no guarantee those goals will be achieved in our lifetimes. We don’t know who will live and who will die. On Simchat Torah, we remember that our lives, however fleeting they may be, are bound up in an eternal story. We make peace with the fact that the journey may never be completed, our dreams may not all come true, and still rejoice that we are links in a chain of tradition that affirms life and hope.

When Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion was burned at the stake, he was wrapped in the blessed Torah scroll with wet wool over his heart to prolong his death. His disciples cried out to him, “Master, what do you see?” He answered, “I see the parchment being consumed by the flames, but the letters soar upward!”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said, “I do not ask You to tell me why I suffer, but only whether I suffer for Your sake.”

On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the power to turn darkness into light by transforming chaos into meaning.

The Israelites had to have a lot of courage to leave Egypt, but they weren’t yet free. They were lost. The difference between being free and being lost is direction. On Shavuot, we celebrate the receiving of our set of directions. On Simchat Torah we celebrate our continuing interpretation of this treasure map, and our faith that there is indeed a way for this impoverished world to reach the X that marks redemption. 

As in many congregations, we will open one of our scrolls on Simchat Torah so that the parchment is entirely revealed. The Torah we will open is one that traveled with me to London, wrapped in a baby blanket.

That Torah was one of the 1,564 Czech scrolls gathered by the Central Jewish Museum in Prague during the Holocaust. Under Nazi supervision, every scroll was labelled in Czech and German, giving the name of the community and congregation from which it came. Ours was one of the 216 scrolls that had lost their tags. It is known as an Orphan Scroll. Twenty years after the war, the scrolls were discovered and brought to Westminster Synagogue, from where many were distributed to temples all over the world. I was taking the Torah to London for a reunion of the scrolls, 50 years after their rescue.

In the TSA security line at the airport, two Charedi men kept looking back at me, whispering to each other. Finally, one man asked, “Are you holding a Torah?” I nodded. His eyes widened. Then he declared, “You must go before us in line,” and he cleared a path. “The Torah should always go first!”

At the museum at Westminster Synagogue, I saw the piles of scrolls that were too damaged to be lent out. Some by fire, some by water. Some had their skin nibbled by rodents. Some were rotten or torn, grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.

Our Orphan Torah is not as beautiful as others I saw, with their flourishes and ink as bright as patent leather. Ours is all scratches and stains, faded chunky letters, ungraceful lines, age spots, wrinkles and puckers. It is considered nonkosher.

What does our Orphan Scroll tell us, that heralds from not one, but all destroyed congregations? What does it say about racism, fear and hate? About survival and hope?

It says: All of humanity is descended from one couple. Every person is made b’Tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. Here is the Sabbath, the world’s greatest religious gift. Here are the Ten Commandments, an ethical blueprint of civilization. Love your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger in your midst. Proclaim liberty throughout the land. I turn a slave people into a nation of priests. I am the voice of Sinai. I am the DNA of history. I am the hard consonants brought to life by the soft vowels of your breath. I am the Tree of Life. I am witness to the worst and best humanity has to offer. When there are no more human witnesses, I will remain, my letters soaring into the sky.

Simchat Torah is a celebration, yes, but it is also a protest. It is a spiritual resistance. … It is a celebration of the power to protest, even against God.

The first letter of the Torah is the beit of bereshit and the last letter is the lamed of Yisrael, and together lamed-beit spells lev, which means heart. The whole covenant is framed with love. A love letter addressed to a world aching with pain and sorrow, hand-delivered and sealed with a kiss.

At Simchat Torah, we dance to open our hearts. So let’s dance. 

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles is senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah and author of the children’s book “The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah” (Apples & Honey Press, 2017).