By Melissa Zieve
*This speech was presented at the Bolton Street Synagogue celebration for Shavuot in 2019.
When Andy asked me to be one of the ten people to share thoughts on Torah tonight, like several of us, I was honored – and also intimidated. Torah: no more important topic in Judaism. And how to narrow my thoughts? Certainly, no broader topic in Judaism. Torah is like Mary Poppins’ bag – you can pull out whatever you want or need, it’s magic that way. You can see that in the range of subjects touched on here tonight.
As I thought about how to focus, I kept coming back to a quote I heard recently. Some of you have heard me repeat it many times now. I’ve been quite taken with it. It’s from Rabbi David Stern’s eulogy for Al Vorspan, a great social justice leader in the Reform movement who died earlier this year. The eulogy referred to him as a liberator because he, quote: “freed the Torah from the Ark.” Those six words encapsulate everything I want to say about Torah – but I’m going to take more than six words!
For me, Torah is a guide for how to be in the world. If we get stuck in prayer and study alone, we have missed much of what Torah offers. Applying it to the world is essential. My connection to Judaism is more about what I do than what I believe, though certainly actions reveal beliefs. I don’t usually think of myself as especially religious, but I have a very emotional connection to the Torah scroll itself. Holding a Torah moves me in ways I had never imagined before having that experience. And it never diminishes for me. With the Torah in my arms, I feel a power as if I were holding the original Torah on Mt. Sinai. And I suppose you could say, in some ways, at that moment, I am. I have always loved the image and idea held in our tradition that all of us were present at Mt. Sinai, all Jews who would ever exist, there together. Holding the Torah against my heart takes me spiritually to that moment and that place. The same moment we celebrate here tonight.
But back to Torah today. Torah is basically a long story, or a collection of stories, about our people. Storytelling is what makes us human; it’s how people learn about and understand each other. It’s why we’re sharing stories here tonight. In Torah, we repeat our communal redemption story. And we are instructed to read the story out loud and to read it in community. These aren’t random instructions. They recognize the social nature of people with the instruction to be in a group, and also point to the aural nature of Torah – not oral as in spoken, but aural, meant to be heard. Torah is not just about words, but about cadence and repetition and beat. The multi-sensory aspect is important.
Martin Buber said of Torah, “Do not believe anything a priori; do not disbelieve anything a priori. Read aloud the words written in the book in front of you; hear the word you utter and let it reach you.” He was telling us to listen and to be open to what Torah says to us personally and in the present. Torah is eternal, and I believe its stories hold a contemporary message for each generation. The word Torah itself means teaching – it is an eternal tool for learning.
A piece of Torah learning I recently received, is in a book on social justice from a Jewish perspective. In a section written by Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, he references a midrash in which Moses asks God why the Israelites deserve redemption and God replies that they are deserving because they are destined to receive the Torah three months later. This midrash indicates we were freed not because of what was, but because of what was to be – the purpose of liberation was to receive the Torah. Therefore, our purpose in all eras is not just to rethink the past but to imagine the future, a better future. And we can imagine that better future because of our own redemption story and because, in receiving Torah, we are also able to see the sacred in others. And in order to do that, we must engage with the world, act in the world, know those around us. That’s the Torah I try to live, and the Torah I see Bolton Street Synagogue trying to live, too. We must free the Torah from the Ark.