September 22, 2013
Passing Down the Torah
By Matt Shapiro
At Kol Nidrei services for Beit T'Shuvah (which can still be viewed here, in case you haven't checked them out yet!), Rabbi Mark shared the thought that there are words within the Torah for each of us to learn and internalize for the coming year. Accordingly, he had the two Torah scrolls passed around the entire congregation for people to hold and have the words enter their hearts; no small feat, considering the hundreds of people we had in attendance. As one of the two designated "Torah sentries," I engaged in a bit more physical activity than I usually do when beginning a 25 hour fast with no eating or drinking. Instead of the effort weakening me, however, it deeply energized me.
Not everyone wanted to hold the Torah, and a few people just sort of passed it along to someone next to them; one gentlemen was particularly cavalier about the sacred scroll, doing an odd sort of balancing demonstration with it, perhaps unaware of the stringent precautions against letting a Torah scroll fall (the common consequence of fasting, though not always enforced, isn't quite nullified if the drop happens on a fast day). This group was far outweighed by the people who seemed to be truly touched by the opportunity to hold the Torah close for a moment. A few were hesitant, asking if it was really OK to touch it. A few more said that they had never held a Torah before, and their caution and awe was clear. One woman simply said, "wow....oh wow...," two or three times before handing it back. There was a power to this process that I did not anticipate. Since I'm used to officiating at services and carrying the Torah, I've forgotten how moving the simple act of holding a Torah scroll can be for people.
Funnily enough, I got told about 30 minutes into my Torah squiring duties that I was doing it wrong. The typical tradition, I was told, is for the Torah to be passed down the row, then moved on to the next row. The way I was initially organizing the procedure was for people to stand up if they wanted to hold it, and I would bring it to them. Still, I think I got more out of my "incorrect" way than I would have otherwise. Not only was I able to have more direct contact with individuals that way, but there was also an embodiment of an important principle: bringing Torah to people, wherever they happen to be. In the physical act of handing the scroll to someone, no matter where they were sitting, I was bringing to life the message that the teachings of our tradition can reach people in any place, physical or spiritual.
I can't help but to think about how Torah is frequently compared to water in Judaism, and also sometimes equated with bread or food, a kind of holy nutrition. Appropriately enough, this process was more than enough spiritual sustenance for me to get through the day. It's also fitting for me to be reflecting on this experience now; this coming week, to close out the holiday season, we celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday on which we both complete the annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and begin it anew. I'm moved to think about the variety of experiences different people had holding the Torah that night, and can think of few better encapsulations of what making Judaism personal and meaningful can look like. I'm still feeling the power of that experience, and hope it sustains me well into this coming year.