When a Torah Falls: Relearning Reverence in an Irreverent World

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 6, 2019 / 8 Kislev 5780

Rabbi Kosak requests that you make an effort to read this week’s Oasis Song. Because it is longer than usual, those who have limited time may want to skip to the section at the bottom, “What Should Our Congregation Do”

Summary: Rabbi Kosak thinks back to a couple of times recently when a Torah scroll was accidentally dropped. He reflects on the feelings we have when we see something so precious tumble, and how the traditions that surround our treatment of the Torah are meant to teach us how to experience the emotion of reverence. Finally, he teaches us what responsibilities our community has after one of its Torah scrolls falls.

“We should honor and make the Torah beautiful and have reverence for it and honor it, according to our ability.”
Shulkhan Arukh

On two separate occasions over the last few months, a Torah scroll in our community has fallen to the ground. In both cases, the people involved have tremendous love and respect for the Torah. But accidents inevitably happen. Nonetheless, after the more recent incident, it became clear that a full response was needed.

In each instance, both the people involved and those who witnessed it fall were shaken emotionally. That is both understandable and also the appropriate feeling to have. Those of us who were raised around synagogues have developed a set of habits around the Torah which teach us of its importance.

We are trained from an early age that we do not touch the parchment with our bare hands, but use a “yad,” a pointer, when we read from it. Some of our regular leyners even bring up a personal yad when chanting from the Torah.

We stand when the Torah is in motion, and we sit only once it comes to rest. In between, when the Torah is paraded around the sanctuary, many of us have the custom to kiss the mantle with our tzitziot, the fringes of our prayer shawls as the Torah passes by our seats.

Others hold a right pinky up in the air when the Torah is lifted, a minor custom whose origin is lost to the mist of times. Shaul Lieberman was a great Jewish scholar who also had robust knowledge of Greek and Roman culture and language. He relates that important people in antiquity were recognized by holding a pinky up to them. The implication is that when some raise their pinky to the Torah, they are pointing to what is really important, not human rulers, but the divine word. All of these customs and practices train us to treat the Torah with reverence.

This past Wednesday, in the twelfth grade class on Jewish ethics that Brian Rohr and I teach, we had an emotional discussion with our students about what reverence is.

The class concluded that you couldn’t have reverence without respect, but that you could respect someone or something without holding them in reverence. Respect entails recognizing the dignity of others. Reverence is a heightened form of this, that recognizes a very special, unique and holy status to a person, place or object.

Reverence also seems to involve an emotional component to it. Better still, reverence is an emotion that requires some effort on our part. As a first step, we need to open ourselves to the experience of awe. That’s not easy for us moderns, and certainly not us Americans. Among other things, experiencing awe requires we relinquish control and stand in a place of wonder. That doesn’t just happen automatically, or at least, it only happens automatically infrequently.

To understand this, ask yourself, when you kiss the Torah with your tallit, how often is it a deeply spiritual moment? And how often has it become merely a habitual action?

In an irreverent world, it is natural to become spiritually tired and to stop investing these ritualized moments with the affective energy that transforms them from a behavior into a profound moment. It requires that we surface the realization, “this is the word of God which I am kissing. This is the Torah, which binds our people over the generations. This is the scroll of guidance in how to be the best person possible. It is greater than me, and in its presence I understand my smallness.”

Ours is an irreverent age, a tremendously secular and profane era. Properly analyzing the many reasons for that are beyond our scope here. But in short, many of America’s best virtues also inure us to the subtle experience of reverence:

Our country’s rejection of monarchy, our insistence on equality, our removal of religion from the public square and the long years when we stopped teaching values in our public schools (because they might reflect the values of only the majority group or religion) are overall positives and a reflection of the still unrealized but aspirational American belief that liberty and equality belong to us all.

Yet they have also made us a somewhat crass, coarse and overly materialistic nation. We threw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

So there is a way in which the two instances of a Torah falling are a blessing in disguise to our community. We should feel exceedingly grateful that so many of us still feel disturbed when the Torah we cherish slips from our grasp. It means that there is a strong core of reverence that remains protected by our kehilla. That is a good thing as much as it has also become a countercultural thing.

What Should Our Congregation Do: The Past and the Present

What then are our responsibilities now that our Torah scrolls have fallen? Several people approached me to ask about whether we need to fast or to donate a sum of money to charity. Without going in to a long history of this custom, I do want to provide us some historical background, especially because there is a wide spread belief that fasting is required, at least by those who saw the Torah fall.

First, there is not a single mention in the Talmud or even by the Rishonim, our early legal authorities who lived in the 11th -15th centuries. This is important, because the more ancient a practice is, the more authoritative it tends to be and the more hesitant we should be to change it.

The fact is, though, it is not until the 17th century that some of our Sages begin to discuss fasting when a Torah falls. The problem is that their reasons don’t make good legal sense. They justify the practice of fasting by misquoting or connecting unrelated passages in legally weak ways. This is hardly my opinion. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the most important and revered 20th century Jewish legalists states that “there is no clear source to obligate even the person who dropped the Torah to fast.”

If that is the case, why do so many Jews think fasting is the proper response? How did it become such a well-established late custom? Without hazarding sociological guesses, it seems clear that the Jews of the 17th century had a finely developed sense of reverence for the Torah. As such, they sought a strong behavioral response that would strengthen their communities’ respect and awe for the Torah. For them and their time period, fasting provided an answer—just as the sources make clear that for more than two thousand years previously, no such custom was needed.

Rabbi David Golinkin, to whom I am indebted for his scholarship, states that when a Torah falls, we should act according to the maxim, ‘in the way we sin, thus we should rectify.’ “Thus we should purchase a new Torah mantle, or learn laws of Torah, or instruct all how to hold it or raise it up for hagbah—all in order that it won’t fall again.”

This brings us to our community.

  1. It is appropriate that we should all make an effort to learn more about the laws of Torah. Consider this extended Oasis Songs as a first installment.
  2. Additionally, I will teach a session about the laws and traditions on the Torah after services on Shabbat Chanukkah (December 28th at 12:45). While some people will be traveling or otherwise unavailable, the symbolism of rededication of the Temple of old during Chanukah seems relevant to us.
  3. Our Torahs do not yet need new mantles. Our rimonim, the ornaments on the tops of the handles, however, are in disrepair. Many are missing bells or are dented or are otherwise no longer attractive. We will embark on a multi-year effort to replace them.

It is a Tree of Life to Those Who Hold Fast to It. Let’s do just that.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

This week, please discuss what the Torah means to you. Consider sharing early memories you have of it as a child as well as your adult relationship to Torah.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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