Today, as any man would just before his anniversary, I ponder the past, thinking back to when I first fell in love with her; and I will tell her, though my love, like all true love, is beyond words, that I still love her so. With words from humble, faltering, human lips, I will try to tell her what she means to me.
I was five years-old when we first met. It was Simchat Torah at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. With clipped-on tie and clean white shirt, I lined up with the other five year-olds for the Consecration Service marking the beginning of our religious school education. Each of us ascended the massive marble steps to the bimah. In a daze I approached the rabbi, robed in black, bigger than life and older than time. Smiling, he placed his hands upon my head and blessed me with odd, ancient words. Then, into my tiny, soft hand he placed a little plastic and paper Torah with a cover glittery and gold. "This is yours to keep,” he told me.
I do not know how or why, but somehow I understood that what he gave me was precious and worth far more than the plastic and paper of which it was made. "Mine to keep", I thought. And keep it I did. Everything else from those childhood days--trophies, posters, baseball cards, toy cars and boats, favorite shirts and secret letters--has all been left behind. But not my precious gift. She has always been with me through grade school, my college dorm, endless apartments, Chicago, Europe, Israel, Cincinnati, and finally to California. For 55 years that little paper and plastic Torah with the glittery gold cover and I have been wed.
I stared at my little plastic Torah all week long as I thought about this love song and tried to put into words what Torah has meant to me in my life. My love for Torah, like human love, is a magical combination of form and content bound together in deep and mysterious ways. I love not only Torah's teachings, its morals, its passion, drama and wisdom, but the thing itself, its musty, leathery smell, its parchment demanding respect for its strength, outlasting iron and bronze, steel and empires. That precious parchment holds the letters, written by a scribe with the wisdom of the rabbis and the calm, steady hand of the surgeon. He fashions the phrases by which we live with a turkey feather dipped in an ancient recipe for rich, black ink. We use no metal when we assemble her. Metal is for weaponry, but Torah is an ambassador for peace. Modern, urbanized, civilized people that we are, we still cherish her form, her shape, her smell and her touch. We honor the ancient methods by which she must be crafted. For we know Torah is beyond time, beyond space, beyond fashion, fad or fleeting fancy.
Of course, I love so much more than her physical beauty. I love her stories; the way she entertains and delights my heart and mind and yet, keeps me so firmly grounded in the realities of human existence. Images and drama beyond belief fill her columns; floods, rainbows, frogs, darkness, locusts, rivers of blood, pillars of fire, talking snakes, parted seas, shattered tablets, ladders to heaven, angels, altars and prophets. And yet, amid all the wonder, she reminds us always, that we are but flesh and bone; that we make mistakes, that we, like our ancestors, have to control our evil impulses, our petty jealousies, our gossip, and indifference.
For 4,000 years Torah has been tough on us, urging us to do more and to be more. Where would our world be, who would we be, without her morality, without "Am I my brother’s keeper? Justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” and "Love your neighbor as yourself?" What kind of society would we have without mitzvot; without commandments to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, set free the captive, treat the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the elderly with dignity and respect? “Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not swear falsely, thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shall not murder;" what would the world be without the ten Torah commandments upon which rests the soul of every moral and righteous nation?
Sometimes, my dear Torah, you frustrate me. You say things with which I cannot agree. You say things that cause us to fight amongst ourselves. You say things that I simply cannot understand. You say things that seem so irrelevant in this world of cyber space and warped speed. It’s not easy staying in love with you sometimes. But then I return to your joy; to Shabbat, Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Without you, for whom would we sing our songs of praise? What could we hope to pass down to our children? What lasting contribution would we have made to the morality of humankind?
I love you because when I hold you in my arms, when I study your soft, subtle pages, when I ponder your greatness, I do justice to the memory of those who died for your sake; the martyrs, the sages burned and tortured on your behalf, the pious who refused to dance or spit upon you for the amusement of their Nazi captors.
We all know about the holocaust, but you may not know about David Weiss Halivni, the young Talmud prodigy deported to Auschwitz at 15. One day he saw a German guard unwrapping his midday snack. The sandwich was wrapped in bletl…a page of Torah. “Upon seeing this wrapper,” writes Halivni, “I instinctively fell at the feet of the guard…the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this bletl, this page. He immediately put his hand to his revolver….please I sobbed, give it to me. He gave me the bletl and I took it back to the camp. The bletl became a rallying point. We studied it whenever we could. Anyone caught with the bletl would be killed for carrying contraband. Moshe Finkelstein volunteered. I am sure he slept with it.”
The last time Halivni saw Moshe Finkelstein, Finkelstein just tapped his hip…a sign that the bletl was safe.
Torah, when we pass you each Shabbat morning from father and mother to daughter and son we witness the triumph of God, the defeat of those who mocked you; who dared turn your sacred skin into lamp shades or ash.
Sunday, when I hold you in my arms during this year of Covid, I cannot dance you lovingly up the synagogue aisle. But in my heart and mind I will be dancing anyway with my bearded great grandfather, though he died before I was born. I will leap and whirl amid the music and the children with his grandfather, and his grandfather's grandfather, and two hundred generations of bubbies and zaydies who carried you from long ago into my eager, rabbi arms.
As this Shabbat before Simchat Torah approaches my dear, sweet Torah, I cannot help but remember when first we met some 55 years ago. Into my tiny, soft hand the rabbi placed you with a cover glittery and gold. "This is yours to keep," he told me. But I know it is really you who keeps me. And for that, I shall always love you.
Love and Shabbat Shalom,