The Torah Scrolls on the Floor
Looking for drama on Saturday mornings?
Each Saturday morning during Shabbat services, no matter what city you live in or what flavor of observance a synagogue or temple may ascribe to, there is that moment of truth. The moment when the person given the honor of lifting the Torah, or hagbah, lifts the open Torah scroll above their heads, turns around for the congregation to see the letters, and then sits down in a chair where he is assisted by the galilah, the Torah dresser, who wraps the Torah, fastens it with a silken belt, places the cover back over the Eytz Chayim, or wooden posts, and adorns it with a silver breastplate depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. The galilah then replaces the silver pointer hand, or yad, and then finally the beautiful Keter, or crown, is placed atop the wooden posts.
Sometimes while lifting, the Hagbah shows three columns, sometimes, if they are really strong, four or five columns.
At this crucial moment in the Torah service, there is a certain element of danger in the air. We all rise as the Torah is lifted. Out of respect, yes, but also knowing that we are all in this together if the Torah lifter does not get it just right.
The suspense is especially stronger if we are at the beginning or end of the Torah cycle; when the Torah is scrolled way to the left or the right. For if the hagbah loses their grip or if their strength gives out, to drop a Torah scroll is a grievous mistake. To see the hagbah struggle or even tip slightly under the weight of the Torah elicit responses of gasps and “oh no’s” from the congregants and quick assists from the others on the bimah to steady the scroll from falling. And a feeling of relief and handshakes of “Kol Hakavod” after the Hagbah steps down from the bimah and returns to their seat in the congregation.
So serious of an offense, that on the rare occasion when a Torah scroll does fall to the ground, the offender must fast for 40 days. To reduce the severity of this consequence, oftentimes, a congregation will divide the 40 days to 40 congregants.
This is why so many are hesitant to perform the mitzvah of Hagbah for fear they might drop Judaism’s holiest possession.
Jews take the physical aspects of our holy books very seriously.
If you had an observant Jewish education, you were taught that our prayer books: our Siddurim, our Chumashim, were NEVER to be on the ground. If you do drop one, as kids often do, it is customary to give the book a kiss, because these books have Gd’s name in it. The same goes for our talit, or prayer shawls with the fringes that represent the Torah’s 613 commandments. None of these things should ever touch the ground out of pure respect.
When Torah scrolls and prayer books are so old and worn they can no longer be used, they, with prayer shawls, are buried in a Jewish cemetery.
In many synagogues, you may see a battered Torah scroll, or a fragment of it. Water stained. Singed. Enclosed in its own glass case or hanging in a frame.
These are known as the Holocaust Torahs, which the Nazis confiscated and kept in barns or stables, to one day be placed in a museum to show off how the Third Reich had thoroughly extermined the Jews from the face of the Earth.
So, when I woke Saturday morning to learn that some ….. thing, some thug, some subhuman walked into the Nessa Synagogue in Beverly Hills and trashed its insides.
And tore our prayer books. And threw our talit on the ground.
And threw and unraveled our precious Torah scrolls to the ground.
My heart and soul went into a state of mourning.
What the shock must have felt like to those early risers who were first to arrive for Shacharit services that morning.
Did they think they were in Beverly Hills?
Or 1930’s Berlin?
The image of a naked Torah scroll lying on the ground to a Jew is visceral.
What animal would do such a thing? What rhetoric or “free speech” did they hear to spurn on this act of hate?
So Jews.. what are we going to do about it?
Luckily, Chanukkah is coming.
Chanukkah. No, No, it is not the Jewish Christmas. So for Gd’s sake, stop competing with it like it is.
Just, on your debates on whether we should have a stupid Chanukkah bush or oh how cute Chanukkah Harry is and oh my kids feel so left out during Christmas…. so we make a big deal out of Chanukkah with presents and we get a bush….
For fuck’s sake. Just stop.
Chanukah means: Rededication.
It marks a time in OUR SHARED Jewish history when, in 164 BCE the greatly outnumbered Maccabees in three years defeated the Assyrian Greeks and liberated Jerusalem and when they got to the Temple on the Temple mount they found it to be completely trashed.
Pig’s blood and idols everywhere.
The altar smashed.
And they adjusted their energies from defeating their enemy to then rededicate the Temple and thus rededicate the Hellenised Jews in ancient Judea back to a Jewish way of living.
In the aftermath of the Nessah Synagogue desecration, which, even in this year where haters have defaced synagogues, beat up on Jews and most recently, even killed Jews in Jersey City, what Jews need to do now is find some strength. And Light.
Nessah, if I’m reading that correctly, in Hebrew means miracle.
During Chanukkah, we celebrate the miracle. Not about the oil lasting, but that the Jews had the strength to battle on.
We must battle on. Now is not the time to hide or shrink into the darkness.
That can mean speaking out against Jewish or anti-Zionist hatred from wherever or whoever is spewing it.
That can mean attending services or make a minyan for someone on mourning.
Or, it can mean celebrate Chanukkah for what it is.
Not a Jewish Christmas.
But a time to rededicate ourselves as Jews to our strong, proud, Jewish path.
Smashing the Idols of Today’s Jew-Hatred: Lessons learned from Lech Lecha
I had the privilege of giving the dvar Torah at my synagogue this weekend.
For those who need explanation – Dvar Torah, literally translated as “words of Torah” is a weekly speech or sermon delivered in synagogues about the week’s Torah reading. It can be given by the rabbi, the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, or synagogue members.
It allows us, through examination and introspection and study, to put our own take on the Torah reading.
Here’s mine from yesterday:
Has there ever come a time in your life where you had the rug pulled out from under you?
When suddenly there is a shift in the paradigm, and you are asked to get up and move to a distant land or situation?
This is the case with Abraham. In just the third parashah of the Torah cycle, seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with #Abraham aveinu. Right here, in a sudden shift, the Torah moves from the universal: The Creation of the world and the beginnings of humanity, to the particular:
Abraham. And the history of the Jewish people.
And what do we read in the very first lines of our Parashah?
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.
וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”
Right here, from the get-go, God establishes the connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Four times in this parashah, God instructs Abraham to possess the land.
God enters a covenantal relationship with one specific people. God commands Abraham to live by that moral law for his own good and the good of all humanity. In picking himself up and moving to an unknown land for him and his progeny, Abraham demonstrates he is the first to believe in the one, living God. And by willingly picking himself up to settle in Canaan, Abraham becomes the first Zionist.
This is the first passage of hundreds woven into the Torah about the mitzvah of Haaretz, a connection to the land of Israel. Half of the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah are specific to Haáretz. Settling and living in the land, according to the Torah, is essential for Jews to create their own, just and righteous society.
From this point on, the Torah establishes the fact that Judaism is more than a religion.
We are Am Yisrael.
The Nation of Israel.
The Children of Israel.
Geographically speaking, it is an inconvenient fact that most of the places mentioned in Bereishit, from Abraham’s stop in Shechem, building an altar to God at Beit El, dwelling in Mamre, attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak on Mount Moriah and finally, conducting history’s first real estate transaction in Hevron are located in Judea and Samaria, territories that most of the nations say are void of any Jewish connection.
There is a theory that is being peddled around: that being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel, or anti-Zionism, meaning the belief that Jews do not have a collective right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, has nothing to do with today’s global rise of hatred towards Jews.
To those who hold these beliefs, I invite them to examine and study the many references about settling in the land and then tell us that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism.
IN 2017, American Zionist groups in timing with Parsha lech lecha, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, proclaimed that Shabbat Lech Lecha will now be known as Zionist Shabbat, where American Jews should relearn the significance and importance of Zionism in our religion.
AZM President Richard Heideman wrote: “The first commandment given to a Jew relates to Israel and Zionism. Indeed, Zionism and Judaism are inseparable, and we need to ensure that all Jews who are celebrating Shabbat around the world incorporate our common love for Israel – the land, the people and the culture – in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people,”
In a 2019 video essay explaining the mutations of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks explains how Jew-hatred shifts and mutates through the centuries. That is why the current hater claims they are not a hater because their hatred differs from the Jew-hatred of the past.
For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th century, Jews became secular and assimilated and were hated for their race, because they were capitalists, and because they were communists. Now, we are hated because we have a nation-state.
Perhaps, we are hated because we have survived as a distinct, unique people with our own traditions and customs. Perhaps, like Abraham, we are hated because it is in our DNA to go against convention.
Last week, at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, I had the chance to catch a panel discussion with Tablet editors last week. There, editor in chief Alana Newhouse said the reason why Jews have survived as a unique and distinct people is that we have operated not by going with the flow of general society, but perpendicularly from the rest of society.
Sometimes, as Rabbi Sacks explains, Lech lecha means “go by yourself.”
Often, it does seem like the children are of Israel are alone.
Sure, criticism of Israel’s politicians and policies are fine, just ask the Israelis who do this every day.
Yet Israel stands alone in an often-impossible situation, She faces existential challenges and must make difficult decisions that are not asked by most nations on earth.
But criticism of Israel loses all nuance when it is now more popular to call for the illegality of the existence of Israel in its entirety. That, is anti-Zionism.
Our pro-Israel students on campus must increasingly be feeling like Abraham, standing alone to the taunts and chants that Israel is a Zionist and therefore a racist state.
Little do these accusers know that they are peddling a conspiracy theory hatched in the 1970’s in the United Nations by the Soviet Union and spread through Arab countries by Yasser Arafat.
Don’t believe me? Check out Bari Weiss’s new book: How to Fight Anti-Semitism.
It’s all in Chapter Four.
Like Abraham, 400 Jewish students this month got up and walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). They were protesting the body’s overwhelming support for a motion titled “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.”
This motion denied any link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was written by four student government members aligned with the UIUC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). No Jewish student organizations or Jewish individuals, including the governing body’s only Jewish member, was asked for input on what defines anti-Semitism.
Student Lauren Nesher acted like Abraham when she led the exodus of Jews from the student government meeting. Nesher is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and Turkish and Iraqi Jews who were kicked out of those nations because they were Jewish.
Before she and her Jewish supporters walked out, she addressed the packed room and said:
Never again will anyone allow the Jews to feel unsafe on this campus, whether we be affected by swastika graffiti, neo-Nazi or university-sponsored presentations that uniquely seek to delegitimize the establishment of a Jewish state.
Nesher is not alone in affirming the Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism connection. The American Jewish Committee just this week released a study titled: American Jews on Anti Semitism in America. In this survey, 82 percent agreed that the BDS movement and its supporters are antisemitic. 84 percent believe the statement Israel has no right to exist is anti-Semitic.
So, what do we do? How do we combat the rising wave of anti-Semitism that goes under the veil of anti-Zionism?
For one thing, know there are others around you who, like Abraham, do not go with the flow. There are those around you who will not check our pro-Israel and Zionist leanings at the door to fit in or be included or accepted into progressive or intersectional causes.
Finally, let’s take a cue from Bari Weiss who suggests, that yes, we should be like Abraham:
Among Weiss’s many suggestions at the end of the book (spoiler alert) she suggests that we be like Abraham. And I paraphrase:
Abraham’s story is deeply Jewish. He stood radically against the prevailing orthodoxy of his time…..
Today, the idols are more abstract than the ceramics Terah, Abraham’s father, prayed to. They come in the form of power and prestige. The temptation to keep your mouth shut in order to get ahead or get along or to be well liked are very seductive…
But we must face the loneliness to be like Abraham. To be brave enough to say, yes, we are different. We need to be courageous enough to stand apart, ot to bend to the crowd, not to give in to group think.
We should find strength and pride in being an idol-smashing people.