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Can the Torah Leave the Temple? #440

07/12/2016 07:08:34 PM

Jul12

Can the Torah Leave the Temple? #440

An interesting debate came to light this past Shabbat as we completed our weekly reading of the Torah:
The discussion centered on this. "Do you believe that Jews must climb to reach the Torah, or should the Torah be permitted to come down to us?"
 
The conversation took shape last Saturday evening at a social gathering as one of our congregants shared a painful experience which occurred almost forty years ago.
 
As he recalled, he was asked by the rabbi of a traditional synagogue to carry the Torah as it made its way back to the ark after its weekly reading.
 
What an honor! He was thrilled! He was exuberant! 

So, as this twenty year old proudly held the Torah and walked it down the center aisle, he gently shifted it from side to side, enabling congregants sitting to the right and left to touch the Torah with their Tallitot (prayer shawls) or Siddurim (prayer books).
 
He also made a brief stop along the women's section where his wife was seated, enabling her to kiss the Torah as well.
 
Suddenly, the Rabbi popped up from his elevated seat in the front of the congregation, and stormed down the aisle. He stopped in front of the procession, and, wagging his finger, chastised the beaming young man.
 
"Stop doing that," he said.  "Don't you know that people should come up the Torah? The Torah should not come down to them."
 
The young man was shocked and dismayed. Later, he became a bit disillusioned. After all, this was a proud moment. He felt he was doing something quite remarkable. But that changed.
 
And the memory of being scolded on that morning remained buried for almost four decades, until last Shabbat.
 
It has been our practice at CTI for the past five years that, when a congregant or visitor is ill or disabled, or requires a blessing or a memorial prayer, we bring the Torah down from the Bimah, enabling them to recite the Torah blessings without leaving their seat.
 
It occurred last Shabbat morning, as one of our regular attendees marked the passing of a relative. We brought the Torah to her, and she clearly and proudly recited the Torah blessings.
 
The idea of the Torah being brought to people in their seats was both surprising and noteworthy to many congregants who had assembled to celebrate a simcha.
 
Some had tears in their eyes.
 
But when you think of it, the bringing the Torah down to accommodate a congregant's unique needs is really no big deal. 

The Torah tells us specifically in its closing chapters that God's word is not found "...in the heavens... or the other side of the sea....No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart...." (Deuteronomy 30: 12-14).
 
It means that the Torah belongs to all people, wherever they may be.
 
In fairness to the older rabbi, there exists an honored tradition within Judaism that one "climbs up" to reach the Torah. It teaches us to protect and respect the integrity of our holy scroll. It also challenges us to elevate ourselves and we strive to ascend life's ladder.
 
Indeed, when we call someone to the Torah, we say they receive an aliyah: literally an invitation to rise up.
 
Yet, in recent years, for many, the Torah has moved out of reach. So many come to synagogue terrified that they will be called upon to recite blessings, or to read Hebrew. So many are so nervous about standing or sitting at the wrong time that attendance at synagogue can inspire tension rather than joy.
 
So many feel that they are "bad Jews" because they don't follow all the rules and regulations.
 
But perhaps they are not the ones who have been wrong.
 
Perhaps it's the fact that for many generations the Torah and Judaism have been placed on such a high pedestal, they have risen out of reach for too many.
 
Indeed, as the Prophet Micah taught, what God truly wants of us is only to "Do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God." And, as they say, all the rest is commentary.
 
It begs the question why, in our youth, did Hebrew school teachers often focus more on rules, regulations, strictness, and conformity, over care, kindness and compassion?
 
The Talmud teaches that "The Torah begins with kindness, and ends with kindness." That should have been the first lesson we were taught in Hebrew school.
 
And so, last Shabbat, as a sixty year old man observed the Torah being carried into the pews, a jangled memory was put to rest.
 
As the Torah itself teaches, those laws and rituals which have sustained us for centuries need to remain close by. And if people cannot come to the Torah, the Torah must come to them.
 
This lesson is conveyed in this week's Torah reading which is titled Mishpatim (rules).  During last week's reading, we received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. But what now?
 
This week's Torah portion begins the process of subdividing the Ten Commandments, providing us with numerous rules and ordinances each focusing on justice, goodness and humility.
 
"Be kind to the stranger, widow and orphan."
 
"Don't extract interest from a poor person you lend money to."
 
"When your enemy's donkey has fallen, help him to raise it."
 
There are fifty three mitzvoth (commandments) in this week's Torah reading, and each one of them guides and address us on how to interact with our fellow human beings.
 
Each of these commandments deals with real life situations, taking the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai and bringing them down to earth.
 
* * *
 
As their tiny eyes peaked up from the Torah, sweet chills ran through the hearts of the Cantor and me, and about forty relatives and friends in attendance.
 
This past Sunday, the Cantor and I presided over the baby naming of twin boys at the home of one of our congregants.
 
Each boy had been brought into the covenant days after birth, but this was an official celebration for each to assume the name of a deceased family member, and carry that name into the future.
 
As is our custom, the Cantor and I entered the home with a Torah in our arms, wrapped in a prayer shawl. We placed the Torah gently on a table, opened it, and then placed a prayer shawl over the parchment.
 
And soon after, we placed both of the boys in the middle of the Torah.
 
And we blessed them. 

"May each of your stories be as remarkable as the stories of those who have come before you."
 
The babies looked up from the Torah. There in front of us lay more than three thousand years of tradition.
 
For a moment there was silence in the room, as we gently elevated these two children, and also the integrity and relevance of the Torah.
 
The Torah belongs to each of us, whether that be someone ailing in hospital, or a young mother enduring a painful pregnancy, or a senior in our congregation, or two baby boys just beginning their life journey. We bring the Torah to them.
 
How important it is especially during these challenging times, for the Torah to leave its sanctuary, and meet the people where they are!
 
For the Torah does not live in the heavens that we must climb a mountain to reach it, nor is it across the sea, that we must swim a great distance to access it.
 
It is with us, where we live, work, celebrate, and endure life's challenges. While the Torah must be respected and elevated, most of all it needs to be accessible.
 
For, indeed, religion comes from humanity. 

But the Torah, handed from generation to generation, will last forever.
 
Shabbat shalom, v'kol tuv (with all goodness)
 
Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780