Regarding Torah, the Mishna reminds us, “Turn it and turn it again; everything is in it.”
As Jews, we are invited into relationship with Torah — to receive it, engage with it, be impacted and opened by its richness and complexity.
We Jews keep the Torah. We keep the Torah for more than nostalgic reasons — we keep the Torah because it keeps us. The Torah teaches us who we are at our essential core. And that we keep and maintain and enter into relationship with the Torah — scrolls hand-written by trained scribes, written with special ink on animal parchment, distinct panels with their columns of text, calligraphied Hebrew letters, no vowels, no trope notes, panels bound together with sinew, rolled and glued at the ends onto two wood posts — that we keep and read publicly from the Torah in the same way that our people has for centuries — millennia — dating at least as far back as Temple times in Jerusalem. That we Jews keep and maintain and read publicly from the Torah still in scroll form is really quite extraordinary. Notwithstanding all of the technological advancements in printing and publishing, we keep the Torah in its ancient form.
The Torah scrolls we read from today, in 2007 of the Common Era, are essentially made in the same way, with the same components, the same guidelines, as they were more than 2,500 years ago. In the Book of Nehemiah, from the Writings section of the Bible, we read about the time period marked by return from the Babylonian exile in the early part of the 6th century BCE.
“When the seventh month arrived,” we read in the Bible, “the Israelites settled in their towns. The entire people assembled as one in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses, with which God had charged Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it:... the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the teaching — el sefer haTorah.” (Nehemiah 8:1-3).
Holiness in Judaism means to set apart or designate for a special or unique purpose. Shabbat is holy — a day set apart from the days of the week. Marriage is kiddushin, holy — a relationship of two people set apart from all other relationships. The Torah scroll is one of our klei kodesh, holy vessels. It is set apart for the unique purpose of public readings in the midst of particular worship services, and only in the presence of a minyan, a community of at least 10 Jewish adults.
The Torah is holy because it invites us into a particular type of relationship — and that relationship is holy, unique. The Torah is our teacher. The Torah invites us into relationships with each other, with God, with our deepest selves. Torah is our history and if we let it be, it is the foundation of a rich and meaningful present as well as a pathway to a purposeful future.
Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham is in the midst of a Torah Restoration Project. Two years ago, our congregation engaged a sofer, a trained scribe, to restore three of our four Torah scrolls to their proper condition. Our Torah Restoration Project culminated during the weekend of June 1-3, when the sofer, Neil Yerman, joined us as a Scholar-in-Residence. Shabbat and the entire weekend were filled with joyful learning and meaningful opportunities to connect with each other and Jewish tradition.
As the weekend drew to a close on Sunday evening, together in community we celebrated the completed restoration of our Torah scrolls. What a privilege and delight to participate in this extraordinary moment of completion and new beginning!
In our Shabbat morning services, as we return the Torah to the ark, after reading from it much in the same way that Ezra read to the Israelite people assembled as one in the square at the Water Gate in Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile in the 6th century Before the Common Era, we read these words: “Behold, a good doctrine has been given you, the Torah; do not forsake it. It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast it fast, and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
May this be our blessing — today and always.
Rabbi Cindy Enger is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Bellingham. A student and teacher of Torah, she feels blessed to be part of the Beth Israel community.