Address by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen at the
Presentation of a Sefer Torah to Stanmore Synagogue
Shabbat Parashat Naso - 11th June 2005
Today we, and our youth in particular, are privileged to be the recipients of a Sefer Torah with a complete set of beautiful appurtenances and a reading desk and youth ark, presented to us by our very good and most generous friends, Susan and John Harris.
It is not so long ago that they presented the main synagogue with a beautiful scroll, and with the silver breastplate wrought in the theme of the dove of shalom, peace. And now, once again, they are following this up with another Sefer to enhance the services of the youth shul. It is appropriate to mention that this particular act of dedication has become a veritable tradition within the Harris family, with two previous generations, of John’s parents and grandparents, both having presented Sifrei Torah and stained glass windows to their communities.
On behalf of the youth and the community, I thank you, Susan and John, for your thoughtfulness and generosity, and, in your case, John, I have to say that even more significant and precious than the gift of this Torah that you present to us, is the fact that you present yourself to the Torah each week, as a daily worshipper, being regularly called up to the Torah when we leyen midweek. That is an even greater gift to a community. Income, investment and property is important, but nothing can match human resources. The lifeblood, vitality and religious spirit of a community is measured by its regular worshippers, not by the number of scrolls it proudly possesses. So you have enriched our Stanmore & Canons Park Synagogue in every way, and we thank you, and are proud of you, for that. We also welcome today your dear brothers, Geoffrey and Brian, together with their wives, Jane and Shelley, their children, as well as your cousins, wider family and friends.
Just a few words about the gift we are receiving today. The Torah is Judaism’s most cherished and sacred possession. In an era of mass production, every Torah scroll stands out for its quality of uniqueness. Every single aspect of its production is lovingly and meticulously laboured over: from the preparation of the hide, until it is rendered white and smooth, trimmed and cut into equal sized lengths; to the gut with which those lengths are sown to make a complete roll; to the sirtut, the feint, indented guide marks along each line and margin, to enable the scribe to produce a straight, uniform and artistic script, with each letter conforming to a halahically prescribed shape; to the religious intention with which every letter has to be written by the qualified sofer, or scribe; to the letters and words that, according to scribal tradition, have to be endowed with dots; to certain letters that have to be written very large, and others small; to the two nuns, in next week’s sidrah, that have to be written large and inverted; to the chapters that require to be commenced on a new line, and others that begin on the same line after leaving a requisite space; to the Shirah, the Song of the Red Sea, that is set out in over-arching half-lines to resemble a wall, reminiscent of the way the waters stood upright as a wall to let Israel pass through, and the Ha’azinu song that is prescribed to be set out in two narrow columns; to the traditions regarding certain words that have to be spelled either in their fuller form, with or without the vowel letters, or defectively, omitting those vowel letters; to the spaces that have to be left between chapters and at the end of sidrot, and to the sidrah Vayyechi that runs on with just a one letter space; to the preparation of the quill and the special natural ingredients of the indelible ink that has to be prepared. To name but a few of the areas wherein the uniqueness of a Torah scroll is manifest.
Has any book in history ever been loved or revered so much? We stand in reverence as we catch a glimpse of it, as if it were a monarch. We embrace and kiss it like a spouse. We adorn it and we dance with it on Simchat Torah like a bride. We never stop reading it, and it never stops inspiring and challenging us. Its voice commands and soothes. It troubles and it enlightens. It speaks to a modern generation as relevantly as it did to the ancients. And when it is old, worn out or irreparably damaged, it is interred honourably as if it were a cherished departed being.
Throughout history, Torah scrolls have also suffered the identical fate of the nation to whom they were entrusted. They have been carried into exile; they have been sold in markets as spoils of war. They have been objects of hate; and, in consequence, burnt, torn in shreds, and desecrated. And like doomed parents who have entrusted their precious offspring to those more able to secure their flight from danger, so scrolls of the Torah have been passed for safe keeping from one doomed community to another that, for the time being at least, was enjoying a measure of safety. The wandering Sefer Torah was as much a syndrome as the wandering Jew.
Heinrich Heine got it so right when he described the Torah as the ‘portable homeland of the Jewish people,’ although he meant it in the more restricted sense that, over the millennia, in the absence of a homeland, the Torah fulfilled the same comprehensive purpose. It gave us a language, a culture, a law, a spiritual and national focus, a sense of kinship with fellow covenanters. It gave us a sense of privilege, a sense of pride, a sense of direction, a sense of continuity and of destiny, and a sense of uniqueness about the way we live our life, and the values that we aspire to in our home life and in the way we interact with fellow man.
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When we are called up to the Torah we recite two blessings, one before and one after. Each blessing has twenty words, and the total of forty is meant to recall the forty days that Moses was on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Thus, when reciting these blessings, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether the proportion of the Torah we are observing actually justified Moses having had to remain on the mountain for the entire forty days. Moses had faith in Israel that they would require to master the intricacies of all the laws; that they would desire a total observance. This was responsible for his delay in returning, which in turn prompted Israel to worship the Golden Calf. Moses could have avoided that, had he been realistic enough to confront his people’s shortcomings. Instead, he naively put his faith in them, staying behind on Sinai until he had mastered the entirety of the religious tradition.
The forty words of those blessings over the Torah are meant therefore to symbolically assure Moses that his time there was well-spent, and that our allegiance is to the entire heritage we received at his hands. V’zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshem lifnei b’nei Yisrael – ‘And this is the law which Moses set before the Children of Israel.’
Today a new Torah is ‘set before us.’ And this is a special opportunity for us to ask ourselves individually whether Moses’ efforts on our behalf are being appreciated; to ask ourselves whether or not we are studying his Torah sufficiently, observing it to the best of our ability, educating our children in it to a level that makes it sufficiently meaningful, challenging and relevant to their lives.
Today is a joyful day for our community, but it is also an occasion for introspection, for deciding whether we are receiving merely a beautiful scroll, or also a timely summons to open it up and to see how much there is to learn and to fulfil.