WHEN ENTERING A Jewish synagogue, one’s eyes are drawn to the front of the sanctuary where the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, stands.
Behind the doors sits the focal point of Jewish life — one or more Torah scrolls, often referred to as the Tree of Life.
The Torah, literally the first five books of the Bible, also refers to the entire Jewish Bible. “It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are pleasantness and all its paths are peace,” (Proverbs 3:17-18).
When the Torah is brought out of the ark, people stand, and as it is carried into the congregation, they reach out with their prayer books or the fringes of their prayer shawls to touch the covering.
Then as the Torah passes, congregants enter the aisles and follow it, singing songs of praise.
Last week, seven weeks after Passover, Jews celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, meaning weeks.
Originally, it was an agricultural holiday where Israelites were instructed to take their harvest to the Temple.
However, after the Temple was destroyed and agriculture became less important, the focus of the holiday became the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
On Shavuot, in many synagogues the Torah scroll is unrolled, the congregation stands in a circle and everyone carefully holds onto it from the top so the entire Torah can be seen. It is a powerful experience.
One can see where the words are written in what looks like waves. This is the Song of the Sea.
The Ten Commandments clearly stand out by the way they are arranged on the parchment with obvious breaks between each of them.
The study of the Ten Commandments is an important part of Shavuot, recited as part of services.
Recently, our community gathered for a Shavuot study session.
We held it at a congregant’s home up in the mountains (our “Sinai”).
We brought traditional flowers and greenery, recited and discussed the Ten Commandments, took a walk through the woods and, because eating dairy is a tradition, ate ice cream sundaes.
Our Torah study definitely brought us “ways of pleasantness” and “paths of peace.”
One of the ways we studied was to have each person decide which commandment was the most significant for them and then re-number them in their order of importance. The other activity was to imagine if there could only be one commandment, which one would they choose?
Both of these tasks led to lively discussions with individuals defending their choices and having a dialogue about others’ preferences. It was much harder to do than people expected, and several kept changing their minds about their choices.
That led to a discussion of why the Commandments, which in Hebrew are actually called Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Statements, were deemed so important that they are in the Torah twice, once in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy.
We pondered their relevance in today’s world, and how violating the commandments can lead to far-reaching consequences.
For example, bearing false witness has a direct connection to the chaos and even violence that has resulted from recent years of spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Another example of possible serious repercussions by not following the commandments is that of the fourth, commonly explained as not taking God’s name in vain.
However, the actual translation of this commandment says “Thou shall not misuse the name of God,”meaning one should not do anything evil or hurtful while claiming it’s being done in God’s name.
We then had an interesting discussion about laws currently being passed using interpretations from a minority religious viewpoint, when in fact, those analyses are not how most faith traditions see them.
Recent regulations regarding abortion, LGBTQ rights and the banning of books are causing a great deal of pain and suffering in our society.
For most religious people, using the name of God to defend these laws is a violation of the fourth commandment.
As we study the Torah, we see that it has much to teach us no matter the world in which we live.
Rabbi Chaim Stern says it so beautifully, “As I receive Torah, so may I, through what I am and what I do, be a revelation of Torah to those around me. Make of me a scroll for truths You will inscribe on my heart.”
Kein yehi ratzon. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is email@example.com.