Fulfilling Our Sacred Responsibility
By Michael Teller, AIA
Standing on the summit of Masada with the hot desert wind blowing lightly under the canvas shade, I waited while each traveler read the torah. First the call and response, then the portion, then another prayer. I chanted my portion, singing the ancient trope, reading each beautiful word, so carefully and perfectly written by hand, every black letter filled with meaning, history, and faith.
As I passed the Yad, the traditional pointer to my son, I had an overwhelming feeling of my late father's presence. I looked to the horizon, to the Dead Sea, and despite the lifelessness of the desert, a small bird flew up and perched only a few feet from me. My father was an avid bird watcher and I swear that little bird stood rock still and stared right at me, holding me with its energy and attention.
I could feel my Dad with me then, and I stepped aside to allow my tears to flow. I thought about him, a decorated WW II medic, awarded the Silver Star for bravery on the battlefield, and I wondered about all the valiant fighters of Masada, who had stayed together and died on their own terms. Standing there, high above the desert, I sensed a deepened connection to all the Jewish communities descended from that arid land and now spread across the earth. I wondered, what has kept us together and united through all these thousands of years? My eyes fell upon the opened torah.
The torah, the single most unifying element in our religion and our most sacred object. In fact, the Sages taught that the torah is actually the Blueprint for the World. They taught that the torah stories came before creation, that these stories are actually a prerequisite for creation. How can a collection of stories – these five books of Moses – be a blueprint for creation? As an architect, I understand a little something about blueprints. A blueprint is a series of instructions on how to build something – Every good blueprint is based on a vision. The vision of what is to be achieved.
For me, the most important aspect of every design is the light. How the light is guided into a space, how it reflects off every surface, and what it ultimately illuminates. Why do you think there is so much glass in the new library? (As the architect of our new library) When I am in there, I feel the power of the light and, yes, even God's presence in this newest holy place.
So, what do the Rabbis mean when they say that the Torah is the Blueprint for the World?
They are telling us that before God even created the world, God created the torah as a plan for what was to be achieved, physically and morally in the world. The stories of the torah teach us about the laws God wants us to follow and the values we are to strive towards. From these stories we learn about illness and healing, loss and courage, struggle and redemption. We learn about love, peace, and respect. The torah is our instruction, our guidebook, our blueprint, on how to live in the world, how to be a good citizen, and how to live a fulfilled life.
We, here at Congregation Sha'aray Shalom, are the stewards of three torahs. One is from Russia. It's the heaviest and it's over 100 years old. The smallest, and lightest one is from Poland and it's about 80 years old.
The third and our largest torah is reported to be over 200 years old. It is from a small village in Czechoslovakia, a place with pogroms and Anti-Semitism, a very difficult place to be Jewish. Imagine, for a moment, the lives of that community and how this scroll came to be. The townspeople – people like us, made up of folks of all different professions, and before electricity, pooled their recourses to commission a new torah with the intention of moving closer to God and to each other. We can picture the life cycle events that the torah was a part of, the lives that it touched, and the people that cared for it.
Imagine their scribe, from the school of mystics, with the knowledge and ability to write the entire torah, all 304,805 letters, in 245 columns, with 42 lines per column, on approximately 62 pieces of parchment, writing the words perfectly, by lamplight, and in secret.
The villagers and the town are all gone, but our beautiful scroll, saved from the hands of the Nazis, survives. The scroll is worn and water damaged and it needs our help. It is not considered Kosher and that is why we do not use it in our ceremonies. It sits idle in our ark.
When I think of the violence and discrimination that those Jews endured because of their heritage and faith, it makes it even more imperative that we care for what they were able to leave behind.
The light of their torah was extinguished and we need your help to bring the light back.
The scribes call the black ink used to write the torah "liquid darkness", and the words of the torah, they call the "light". This year we will bring the light back to our holocaust torah as we begin a yearlong restoration process we are calling Sh'nat HaTorah, the "Year of the Torah", and you can all be a part of it. Join hands with us as we come together as a community to support the restoration project. This is a once in a lifetime mitzvah to be shared with every member of every family as we dedicate portions of the torah.
Ask yourself, is there a portion of the torah that resonates particularly with you, with someone you love, or with someone you remember? Is it the story of creation? Moses parting the Red Sea? The names of Abraham's wives? Your children's Bar/Bat Mitzvah parashat? How about the First Word of the Torah, "Bereishit", "In the beginning"? What about Joseph's multi-colored coat, Noah's ark, the Ten Commandments, or the word Israel? You can dedicate any portion you like, from a single letter or word to an entire Book of Moses. I am thrilled to be a part of this restoration project. I love this torah and I am passionate about its repair.
This morning, wrapped in my father's tallis, I am reminded of the traditions that are passed from generation to generation. Lauren and I are happy to be part of those traditions by dedicating the First Book of Moses – Genesis. We are doing this as a tangible reflection and commitment to the values we all share. The people that originally commissioned and created this torah are forever lost to us. We cannot bring them back or even say their names. But what we can do is restore their torah, the very torah that they held so dear.
Just so you know, these dedications will replace our Annual Appeal for this year. Please consider making a bigger donation, this year, to dedicate a portion of the Torah, in honor of a loved one. To date, we have secured over $80,000 in pledges toward our goal of $250,000. We have created a brochure describing the details of the restoration project that is available at the synagogue. Thank you to Toby Wolk Design for creating a beautiful brochure that explains the entire dedication process. We also have a new on-line donation page on our web site, www.shaaray.org.
I am also pleased to announce that our scribe will be visiting us multiple times throughout the coming year. He will educate us more about the Torah itself and he will repair and restore our torahs while he is on site.
His first visit was last Sunday. While he was here, we had the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah. There are 613 Mitzvot. The 613th, and final, mitzvah commands each one of us to write his or her own torah. "How can that be possible" we ask? Because the sages say that if each of us writes only a single letter in the torah, it's as if we have fulfilled the entire commandment. So, when he returns (date to be announced), all day, here in the Social Hall, we can sign up to write our own letters – with the help of the scribe – to fulfill a lifetime mitzvah. We will hold the quill with him as he fills in a letter and explains to us the spiritual significance of our letter and our action. The seemingly plain and mundane act of adding ink and making a letter mark on parchment holds with it tremendous emotional and spiritual strength and inspiration.
Torah is testimony of the covenant between God and Israel. When we honor the torah, we honor our history and community. It is taught that whomever honors the torah will be honored, and by our actions, restoring our Holocaust Torah, we will also be honoring the townspeople of that small village who are gone. We honor every person who has been oppressed because of their belief in the torah, and we honor this congregation as we celebrate the love and support that we each receive by being a part of our community.
On Masada, the winds of the past reached towards me and inspired me to take action in the present. Join us on our journey into the future as we restore our single most sacred and treasured object and bring the light to our Blueprint for the World.