One of the great joys of being a congregational rabbi is standing with our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students as they read from the Torah for the first time in their lives. Reading from the Torah is a powerful experience. Relatives and friends will travel great distances to hear a child chant from the scroll.
Individuals who usually shy away from walking up and down steps will make a supreme effort "to go up" to the Torah to make a blessing for a loved one.
Once, when I was leading a tour of Jewish sites in Central Europe, we stopped at the town of Eisenstadt, 50 miles south of Vienna near the Austrian-Hungarian border. We had gone there to see the great Esterhazy estate, the grave of Papa Haydn and the remnants of the old Jewish ghetto, which had once housed one of the great yeshivot of the area.
Inside the ghetto's gates, the last such gates still in existence in Europe today, we ascended the steps of a private home to reach a room that had been the community's synagogue. All that was left was a marble ark without doors. Inside the ark were a few columns of a Torah scroll. The parchment was torn, but the letters were still clear.
The group asked me to read a section out loud. It was a powerful moment. We already knew the history of Eisenstadt's Jewish past and tragic end during the Holocaust. As I read and translated the Hebrew words, an intense feeling swept through our group. The same words had been read in that room for centuries. And those very same words were being entoned in living Jewish communities around the world, in the mouths, minds and souls of a generation of young people.
An Ongoing Project
As a people, we have been writing words of Torah for millennia. In this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, there is an assumption in the opening words, "These are the rules that you shall set before them," that the laws of Israel were not merely memorized but written down. In two subsequent passages — "Moses then wrote down all the commands," and "Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people" — the assumption is confirmed.
A verse in Deuteronomy, "and now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the people of Israel" became the basis for the ultimate mitzvah, the 613th commandment, for each Jew to participate personally in the writing of a Torah scroll during the course of their lifetime.
Participating in a Torah-writing project is an increasingly popular activity in American synagogues. It provides an existential link to an ongoing tradition that began at Sinai and continues into the future. It is an opportunity to personally connect with Keneseth Israel, a metahistorical midrashic concept that teaches that the whole Jewish people "from Abraham and Sarah to the generation of the Messiah" stand as one before the "throne of glory."
Viewed from a religious perspective, it could be said that Judaism is a Torah project. It is an old, ongoing, communal agreement not only to create and maintain the physical scroll of the Torah, but to use its words as the beginning point in the construction of an infinite cosmos of meaning called Judaism.
Torah is not just an object; it is a worldview that begins with an etiology of existence itself, a valuation of existence as inherently good and an ethical path for all of humanity. For the Jewish people, it is our narrative, our constitution, our starting point as a community, as well as a still-unfolding universe of possibilities from the minute details of ritual to a vision of humanity redeemed by justice.
As this week's portion instructs us, we are still writing down the ancient words of our tradition, reading them aloud, and finding ways to employ them as we continue our journey from Sinai to tomorrow and beyond.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.