ISSUES OF FAITH: The Torah exemplifies Jewish life

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 of the ark sits the focal point of Jewish life: one or more Torah scrolls, often referred to as the “tree of life.”

When the Torah is brought out of the ark, everyone stands, and as it is carried into the congregation, people reach out with their prayer books or the fringes of their prayer shawls to touch the covering.

Congregants enter the aisles and follow the Torah, dancing and singing songs of joyous praise.

It is considered an honor to carry the Torah or to participate in any part of the Torah service.

Such respect is shown because the Torah contains the first five books of the Bible which tell the story of the Jewish people and their covenant with God.

Literally, the Torah exemplifies our people.

I recently spent five days in Chicago at the Union of Reform Judaism’s Biennial with 5,000 other Jews from all over North America and Israel.

Words cannot express how it felt to pray, sing and learn surrounded by those who exult in our Jewish traditions.

It was uplifting to be exhorted, to follow the mandates of our texts in taking care of the poor and oppressed, the refugee, and to do all we can to bring about tikun olam — repairing our world — which is at the heart of Judaism.

As a representative of a small congregation, I was given the honor of carrying one of the 10 Torahs throughout the sanctuary during the service.

Carrying this Torah in the midst of 5,000 singing and dancing Jews was an experience beyond my imagination.

The physical Torah scroll is quite heavy, but it felt like a feather as I leaned in so people could touch it.

Holding this sacred scroll that day was a transcendent moment, a peak experience in my Jewish life.

Along with the symbolic importance of the Torah, it is instructive to know what goes into the writing of the scrolls to understand why damaging a Torah is such a shocking desecration of a holy object.

Every letter of a Torah scroll is painstakingly written by hand by a religious scribe trained in this art.

The parchment used is from the skin of a kosher animal, and the letters are written using a quill pen dipped in specially prepared ink.

No metal may be used in the writing because metal is used to make weapons of war.

There can be no mistakes, and if one is made and cannot be fixed, the entire page must be destroyed and the scribe must start that page again.

The pages are then sewn together with the sinew of a kosher animal. Because of the time and labor involved in creating a Torah scroll, not many new ones are written.

Most of our Torahs are historic and were brought to our country by rabbis or families escaping persecution, thus adding to their sacredness.

This information may help others understand why, when Jews hear of an act of synagogue vandalism, one of the first questions asked after being assured no one was injured is, “Were the Torahs spared?”

The sacredness and symbolic importance of the Torah cannot be overstated.

It is at the center of our religious faith, instructing us how to lead a holy life.

Looking at the pictures of the desecration of the scrolls in the recent attack at a Los Angeles synagogue, with pages of the Torah ripped out, thrown on the floor and liquid poured over them, was not only enraging, but incredibly sad.

It made me sick at heart.

The rise of anti-Semitic acts in recent years is, quite frankly, terrifying.

It was difficult to come home from a joyous celebration of Judaism and reverence for our traditions to see the attack on this synagogue and read of the desecration of 100 Jewish graves in France.

We must never forget how easily people were willing to look away during World War II as Jews were labeled the enemy.

The consequences were horrifying.

I close with the words from Proverbs 3:17-18 from which the song “Eitz Chayim,” sung during the carrying of the Torah, is derived.

“It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all it paths are peace.”

Kein yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will. Shalom.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected].

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