Shabbat candles: 6:28 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Havdalah: 7:25 p.m.
The last of the 613 Mitzvot insinuates itself homiletically into this week’s Torah reading: “Now, write for yourselves this ‘shirah’ and teach it to the Israelites. Make them memorize it so that this song will be a witness for the Israelites.” Ostensibly, the shirah in question is the song of Ha’azinu (next week’s reading) and the command is to preserve that poem as proof that God foretold the peaks and valleys of Jewish history.
But the Talmud sees in the verse a command to write down not merely Ha’azinu, but the entire contents of the Torah, as well. Each Jew is thereby obligated to write a Torah scroll sometime during their lifetime. A substantial literature has accumulated around the details of this ultimate commandment and its unusual formulation, but all agree on one fundamental: Not only are the Jewish people inseparably attached to the words of the Torah, they are inextricably connected to the physical embodiment of those words — the Sefer Torah.
The very physicality of the Torah formed the basis of a well known interpretation of the Mishna [Avot 4:8] “R. Yosi says: Whosoever honors the Torah is gufo (himself) honored by people.” Gufo can also can be translated “his body.”
The Torah parchment is the ultimate example of how the most carnal of objects, the hide of a beast, can be elevated through our efforts to the highest levels of sanctity. Whoever internalizes that lesson will find that not only are their spiritual strivings honored by those around them, but even their physical needs and infirmities will be met with respect and deference.
Ultimately the Jew is identified with the Sefer Torah. The tradition that every Jewish soul has its roots in a letter of the Torah draws upon the assumptions that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah and 600,000 original souls who left Egypt. When Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon was about to surrender his soul heavenward, as the Romans burnt him alive in the coils of Torah scroll, he compared the separation of soul and body to “parchment burning, but letters ascending upward.”
So aware are we of the innate attachment we have to Torah, we actually endow the scroll with human traits: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, explained that during prayers at a time of drought, the Mishna prescribes taking the Torah ark into the town square and placing ashes upon it, just as ashes are placed on the heads of the assembled Jews — the Torah itself becomes one of the supplicants. Exquisitely sensitive to the nexus of the Jew and the Torah scroll, Rabbi Soloveitchik devoted an address to the topic: “A Jew is Compared to a Sefer Torah,” tracing both legal and philosophic ramifications of the idea.
And so it comes as no surprise that stories regarding particular Sifrei Torah and their histories abound. One year, before Simchat Torah, I asked my students at the SAR Academy to bring in their family stories about particular Torah scrolls — and the outpouring led me to make it an annual project. We were introduced to Sifrei Torah saved during the Holocaust — and those lost. We met Torahs written for the celebration of milestones and those written in the hopes of a speedy recovery from illness. One parent had a Torah written for the Jewish community of Barbados, where he annually serves as rabbi during the High Holy Days. We discovered Torahs rescued from the earth, and, in the case of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, a Torah that truly embodied “letters ascending upward.”
In the final analysis, human life takes precedence over the preservation of the Sefer Torah, as several stories showed. In one, told by Rabbi Pesach Krohn, a Holocaust survivor scrimped and saved for decades to write a Torah in order to atone for wearing shoes, in a concentration camp, whose inner sole was made form the parchment of a Torah.
And then there were my inlaws. Refugees from Hitler’s Germany, they safeguarded for years in their home a Torah bought by my wife’s grandfather. They regularly argued, in case of fire, whom should they save first? My father-in-law said, “the Torah.” My mother-in-law said, “the children.” And one day, fire struck. My father-in-law made trip after trip in the smoke, bringing out all the children. Then, as he stood panting on the sidewalk, my mother-in-law asked him, “Haven’t you forgotten the Torah inside?” They made one more trip and today that Torah resides in the ark of my Queens synagogue.
In the waning moments of Yom Kippur, during Neilah, the holy ark customarily remains open. We are joined in prayer by the Torah scrolls who give us life and to whom we have, in return, given life, as well.
May they and we merit life and health in the year to come.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, and a teacher at the SAR Academy, can be reached at email@example.com.