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Torah Commentary
Vayeilech (September 20, 2014)

Rolling Torah

Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich

LAST SHABBAT AFTERNOON, in between b’nei mitzvah, Cantor Corrsin and I enjoyed one of the pleasures of the season: We rolled the Torah. It’s an act of love that I look forward to each year. And happily, we take our time, carefully making sure that each turn is as perfect and symmetrical as possible, given the limitations of our handcrafted gem. After all, our work has to last an entire year.

Our “favorite” Torah (as we like to call it) has letters that are inked beautifully, large and legible, which act like an invitation to holiness day after day, week after week. At the same time, it is heavy and awkward, and the rolling takes a long while. Not as long as it takes to write a Torah — that’s something else entirely — but long enough to allow for conversation and in the most heartening way for some nostalgic review. As we went back to the beginning, we reminisced about outstanding students, interesting sermons, and unusual events associated with music and worship. It felt as though we were lovingly turning the pages of an album, beginning with chronicles of maturity, moving back in time to earlier days of adolescence and then childhood, concluding with the kind of stories that we like to tell our own children, whose message approximates: I loved you even before you were born. Even before we were a nation, God loved the idea of us.

The Torah was set toward the end of Deuteronomy, at a portion titled Haazinu. Haazinu hashamayim v’adabera. “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter.” It’s a poem sung by Moses, summarizing all that the people will need to remember as they enter the Promised Land, leaving Moses behind. Because of the way it is written, in two parallel columns, it is obvious even to young students that there is something special about this portion. The opus is a recap of the Deuteronomy themes: the greatness and generosity of God and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the unreliability of the Israelites and their inability to appreciate God’s goodness. Thank goodness we were able to turn back from the edge because I’m just not there yet. I’m not ready for the Israelites to move beyond the page to enter the Land. Maybe next week…

Sh’ma, with its enlarged letters, agin and dalet, at either end of sentence, asks us to pause and linger over it. The letters form the word Eid (witness), as if the reader, the speaker is a witness to his or her own affirmation, of God’s one-ness. We’ve arrived at Deuteronomy 6:4. Because Sh’ma is most familiar to us as a prayer, some are surprised to see that it is from the Torah. The Eitz Chayim commentary calls it the quintessential prayer but also notes that a prayer is addressed to God, whereas the Sh’ma is addressed to the Israelites. (p. 1024) The beloved passage, “You shall love the Lord with all your heart,” follows immediately thereafter, as it does in our liturgy.

A quick turn to the right and we find a repetition of the Decalogue. Yes, the 10 Commandments. Moses needed to remind this generation of Israelites: “It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.“ (Deuteronomy 5:2) While the commandments are essentially the same, the one significant variation is in the commandment for Shabbat, which implores us to Shamor (observe it), rather than the Exodus version, which says Zachor (remember it).

We traverse the large white space that separates one book from another to return to Numbers, called B’midbar in Hebrew, where God is tried again and again by our ancestors yet continues to keep the covenant. It is here that God led the people in a pillar of fire by night, and they rested under God’s protective cloud by day. (Numbers 14:14) It is here that the Ark of the Covenant is brought into battle as a symbol that Israel will be victorious. In this book, God sustains the people with manna, yet they are dissatisfied... and are taught a lesson about gluttony and gratitude. Numbers records the crucial act of faith and vision when scouts are sent to the land that God promised, and they return with conflicting reports. This collection of events speaks to the painful maturation process — the desire to cling to the familiar and the reluctance to take the leap of faith that growing up requires. As we move toward the early chapters of Numbers, we must stop to read the Priestly Benediction, with which we conclude our worship. With its power to invoke blessing and its characteristic poetic form, we cannot pass it by without taking note.

The cantor and I speed through Leviticus, which gets short shrift in the liberal community as a compendium of laws on sacrifice and cultic practices that no longer apply. True, we are not a sacrificial cult any longer, but I think you will agree that there is still much to be learned from this book. Perhaps the lessons are best seen reflected through the accompanying Haftarot, which draw out themes on covenant and sanctity and divine instruction and, correspondingly, our moral failures and shortcomings and the call to holiness, as God is holy. Perhaps the most familiar passage is K’doshim, Leviticus 19, which forms the heart of our Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon. Its standards guide us throughout the year.

All of a sudden we are in Exodus, standing with Moses, who is being told: “Carve two tablets of stone, like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you shattered. Be ready by morning, and then come up to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the Mountain.” (Exodus 34:1-2) Remember how Moses had a fit when he came down from Sinai with the Commandments, only to find the Israelites worshiping a Golden Calf they had made? And he smashed the tablets in anger. This second attempt at Tablets is followed by God’s self-disclosure. God comes down in a cloud and proclaims the 13 attributes by which we have come to understand the Divine essence: compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. We recite these qualities three times a year in our festival worship as part of our Torah service.

Turning again, we see the detailed information about building the Tabernacle, which makes us look around us in appreciation. There isn’t a day that we come into this beautiful space that Cantor Corrsin doesn’t point out something beautiful that she never noticed before — or something she wants to share. Holding that sense of awe before us, we return to the scroll and come to Yitro, named for Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, a Midian priest. This is the passage that contains THE 10 Commandments, which brings congregations to their feet, as if they are standing at Sinai, when they hear those words. That parashah concludes: “In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.” (Exodus 20:21)

Before Sinai was the passage to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea. The poem Shirat HaYam bounces off the page. The lines appear staggered, creating a visual impression of... a wall, a path, bricks? I treasure this section for the way it links us to those who came before us. Like looking at a baby picture of a child and seeing his grandparent’s face in those cheeks, this Song of the Sea speaks with the voice of generations past. In places the melody isn’t annotated and can be learned only by one who already knows it, echoing the ancient tradition we cherish — the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. Here is what it sounds like:

Song of the Sea (MP3)

I can’t tell you how old that is. I don’t know that anyone can. But, I can tell you what it evokes. It is the photo that has faded with age, worn at the edges but alive with associations. It is the gift of cherished memory, to which we add our own associations. It is the promise of a future that we cannot imagine entirely but have faith in because of the assertion that we hear through the ancient words that still live through us.

And now, as we turn back to Egypt, there is Pharaoh, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. There is hard labor and crying out, plagues, magicians and the ultimate plague, which gave rise to freedom.

Further along, we see a Burning Bush, which was aflame but not consumed. The young Moses, comes close to examine it and is told, “Take off your shoes, for the ground upon which you stand is holy.” God self-identifies as the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… and Moses protests: Who am I to go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt? Because we’ve read the end, we know what he cannot. That what matters is not just one’s personality and qualities but how they are used. Moses overcame his impediments to become Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Rabbi. But in that moment he was just a man who was seeking refuge from his own actions, having struck down an Egyptian overlord who was assaulting a Hebrew slave.

Bridging the space between the books, we take note that the end of Genesis concludes with a promise. Joseph made the sons of Israel swear that once God took notice of them and they were freed, they would bring his bones with them, to be buried in the land of his ancestors — a land that has captured the imagination of our people since antiquity. And every story in Genesis ultimately leads to that exodus.

Before that, Jacob’s blessing... Much like Haazinu at the end of Deuteronomy, it is a summary of information, blessing, wishes and reminders for his 12 sons. It is here that we see that Joseph’s two Egyptian born children, Efraim and Menashe, take their place alongside Joseph’s brothers. And it is with their names that we bless our sons on Shabbat, saying: May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.

Earlier, we see the painful reunion and rapprochement of estranged siblings who lived in different cultures and different social strata. We wonder about the years of silence, when Joseph rose to authority in Egypt and his family had no knowledge of his existence. We are pained by the sibling rivalry that led erroneously to banishment. And before that, we see Joseph as a happy child of a beloved wife… and the travails of four co-wives as they struggle for their husband Jacob’s affection by bearing him children.

Before Joseph suffered at his brothers’ hands, his father had his own rivalry with his own brother, Esau. Jacob married well, not once but twice — first to Leah, then to Rachel — and became wealthy with cattle and children. But prior to that he was just a man who fled his brother’s wrath, Esau’s anger justified because Jacob stole his identity and his birthright.

Their mother, Rebekah, was Isaac’s love… whose life was ever changed after his father brought him up to the mountain, as a sacrifice. Akedat Yitzchak spoke to us of obligations and sacrifice, of love that is transcendent, of our fears for our children and of testing limits.

Had it not been for Sarah, who laughed, who opened her tent flaps in all directions, Abraham would not have been able to leave the influences of his ancestors and fulfill God’s command to Lech (to go) to a new land.

And before the story of our people are those of the nations: Babel with its message of lethal competitiveness; Noah, with its opportunity for renewal; the original rivals, Cain and Abel and the Garden, capital G; Adam and Chava; six days and then rest; and in the beginning, the beginning and the anticipation of the year to come; the pleasure and wisdom that they impart; the satisfaction of a cycle that is about to conclude…

The journey back to B’reishit (Genesis) really cycles back to this week’s parashah, Nitzavim. Listen to the wisdom of our ancestors:

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us, and impart it to us that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and heart, to observe it. (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14)

That is our Torah. May we cherish for the sake of those who will read it and roll it after us.

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