The Scrolls of the People

I recently attended the dedication of a new Torah scroll to a synagogue, so I thought I would present some ideas that I wrote about in my book, Gateway to Judaism, regarding Torah scrolls.

The First Scrolls

Forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish people were finally preparing to enter the Land of Israel, Moses wrote down everything that God had told him on Mt. Sinai and in the desert. He wrote thirteen scrolls on parchment, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and one to place in the Tabernacle near (or inside) the Holy Ark. All Torah scrolls throughout the generations are ultimately copies of these original scrolls, meticulously copied by a scribe (sofer, in Hebrew) from an existent scroll.

The Torah is written on specially prepared parchment (klaf) made of leather from a kosher animal.  The scribe uses an ink that is formulated to last a long time and to retain its black color.  The parchments are sewn together and wrapped around two wooden poles called Atzei Chaim, “Trees of Life.”  Silver ornaments are placed on the Atzei Chaim, and often a silver breastplate, held by a silver chain, adorns the front of the Torah.  Ashkenazic custom is to drape the Torah with a beautifully embroidered cloth cover.  Sephardic Jews encase the scroll in an ornately decorated wooden container, often overlaid with silver.

A Silent Witness

The last of the 613 commandments to appear in the Torah, is the mitzvah for every individual to write a Torah scroll: “And now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths, in order that this song shall be a witness for Me among the Jewish people.”

What purpose does a Torah scroll serve?  The presence of a Torah testifies that there was once a direct communication from the Creator to His creations, in which He informed humanity of His will.  Since the Torah is the word of God, it must be preserved accurately and treated with respect.  The care with which every Torah scroll is copied ensures that it will serve as a standard against which all printed and spoken excerpts can be compared.  It is like a standard measure of length or weight against which all other measurements are evaluated.

The Torah is also the national treasure of the Jewish people, but unlike any other.  The original Constitution of the United States is preserved under bulletproof glass and guarded by the Secret Service, but every Jewish community possesses a copy of the Torah.

The Torah scroll is revered as the repository of our nation’s destiny, law and charter. In a way, it is also like a memento of our national encounter with God at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai — the event that created our national identity. The ninth century Jewish philosopher, Sa’adiah Gaon, went to far as to say,  “Our nation is a nation, only by virtue of its Torah.”

The Ultimate Reminder

According to Jewish law, a Jewish king is commanded to have two Torah scrolls: one to place in his treasury and one to carry with him always. The scroll in his treasury indicated that the Torah is our greatest treasure, both for the truth it embodies, as well as a witness to our relationship with the Creator.  The scroll kept with him reminded the king that even he is bound by its commandments.  The Jewish leader is not followed by a soldier carrying nuclear weapons’ codes, but by a soldier in a tallit, carrying a Torah scroll.  The presence of the Torah scroll acts as a restraint on his behavior and helps the king to be a just and moral leader.

A student of mine once related an incident that vividly illustrates this idea.  When he was about 17 years old, he was asked to transport a Torah scroll from Israel to America. In addition to his seat, a second seat next to him was reserved for the Torah.  When the trip was over, he told me that traveling with the Torah was “worse than sitting next to a rabbi.”  He complained that he had to be extra careful about his movie selection, the books and magazines he read, how he spoke and with whom he struck up conversations, what he ate, and how much he drank.  In his words, “That scroll sitting next to me really cramped my style.”

This is precisely what the Torah is meant to do for the king and indeed for every Jew — to make us aware of our responsibilities, to remind us of what we represent, and to ensure that we act accordingly.

Copying the Torah scroll faithfully in every generation is a way of transmitting the content of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai throughout history.  The reverence with which we treat the scroll is one of the ways we transmit the experience and feeling of that moment of revelation.  I once attended Shabbat afternoon service in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem.  It was the Shabbat of a Bar Mitzvah, a very special one that I will never forget.  The Bar Mitzvah boy was the tenth son of a retired teacher who had completed writing his own Torah scroll in time for the celebration.  This man, praying together with a minyan of his own children, whose son was reading the Torah portion from a scroll that his father had written, exemplified to me the ideal of the mitzvah of writing a scroll.  He was handing down both the content and the feeling of the Revelation to the next generation, ensuring continuity of the encounter between God and the Jewish people begun at Sinai.

People of the Books

The commandment to write a Torah scroll includes the phrase,  “…teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths…” This passage tells us that the main purpose of the Torah scroll is instruction.  Originally, the only text used to teach Jewish law, philosophy and ethics was the Torah scroll.  All information not found in the verses was conveyed by oral tradition.  Eventually this was written down in the form of the Mishnah,  Talmud and commentaries, and the scroll was no longer the exclusive vehicle for studying and teaching.  For hundreds of years, books have served as the principle source of Torah knowledge, while the scroll is used for the public reading of the Torah in synagogue.

Because the verse in Deuteronomy emphasizes the obligation to teach and study from the Torah that we write, most legal authorities maintain that the obligation to write a Torah scroll is now fulfilled through the writing and purchase of the books that we use to study the Torah.  (Yes, this is a plug.)

The books of Torah in a Jewish home take the place of the Torah scroll, but convey the same message.  The six-foot diagonal, high-definition, digital, rear-projection television with surround sound should not be the centerpiece of a Jewish living room.  Rather, the focus should be on our version of the Holy Ark — the bookshelves laden with Jewish books.  Think of the message that children absorb from our reverence and enthusiasm for our books.  Consider also the impact that the books have on the use of “spare time.” Does our hand automatically reach for the remote, the joystick, the game-control pad, or do we reach for the well-worn volume of the Talmud, the book of ethics, or the new commentary on the Torah portion of the week?

Traditional Jewish homes usually have an extensive library of Jewish books.  Just “the basics” of Torah, Prophets, Writings and commentaries, the Talmud and commentaries, the codes of law, works of ethics, philosophy and history amount to a few hundred books.  A close friend of mine once served as the Rabbi of a small community in Australia.  His house was crammed with hundreds of Jewish books in Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and English.  Most members of the community were quite distant from Jewish tradition and were shocked and amazed by the vast numbers of books in his house.  They had no idea that there was so much Jewish knowledge out there.  The Rabbi believes that many people were inspired to begin studying Judaism merely by seeing his library.  Its presence posed a challenge to people’s ignorance and stood as witness to the breadth, depth and grandeur of their Jewish heritage.

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