The auditorium at Temple Emanuel in New York City was filled to the brim this past Tuesday evening for a gathering of 70 Torah scrolls. The scrolls, all originally from Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic, were gathered by the Nazis during the Shoah, and then warehoused near Prague. In 1964, a London based group called the Memorial Scrolls Trust became the ‘owners’ of more than 1500 Czech Holocaust Torah scrolls, and in the decades that followed, the trust placed most of the scrolls in Jewish communities around the world on permanent loan. Congregation Beth Am Israel is blessed to serve as guardian of MST #780, a 220+ year old Torah, classified as an ‘orphan’ as its community of origin is unknown. #780 participated in this week’s gathering in New York, joyfully accompanied by a full minyan of Beth Am Israel folk.
It was extraordinarily moving to be in the presence of 70 Shoah Torahs, to see them held and carried with such love, to rise along with 700 people to honor these survivors of our people’s worst horror. Elliot Cole carried #780 with humility and with great joy.
‘Our’ Torah turns out to be remarkable and fascinating even beyond its Holocaust history. A sofer (Torah scribe) present at the event dates our scroll to ‘before 1800’ based on some of its lettering and the way in which the panels of parchment are sewn together. And some of that lettering reflects centuries old kabbalistic practices. In particular, our Torah’s sofer periodically drew the letter ‘peh’ in an especially beautiful way. This style of ‘peh’, known as ‘peh m’lufaf’ – a wrapped or enveloped ‘peh’ – looks like the letter ‘peh’ inside the letter ‘peh’. One passerby on Tuesday evening, a young woman who had chanted from one of the Shoah scrolls at her bat mitzvah, called it a ‘pregnant peh’. They’re all over the place in MST #780.
Here’s a sampling from Parashat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19: 13-19. Every time I open our scroll, I find more and more beautiful and intriguing scribal flourishes. The word m’lufaf – wrapped or enveloped – strikes me as the word of the day. Each scroll in the hall on Tuesday was enveloped with love, wrapped with honor. All of it reminiscent of a beautiful midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:12) that describes the original gift of Torah presented to Moses on Sinai. Said Resh Lakish (R Shimon b Lakish): “The Torah was given to Moshe, with skin of white fire and written with black fire, sealed in fire, and wrapped with fire (m’lupefet b’eish)…” Wrapped with fire indeed. Truly the story of these Shoah scrolls.
The writing of the Torah has long been a topic of interest and speculation. The early rabbis wondered about the Torah’s ‘original’ language and its ‘original’ lettering. The Hebrew characters that have been in use for the past two thousand years are known by the rabbis as ktav ashurit – Assyrian writing. A delicious teaching (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:7) suggests that that name conveys the ‘uprightness’ of the letters themselves. Upright = m’ushar; ashur (same letters and root) = Assyrian. Upright and, claims the Tosefta, eternal. The proof? Words from this week’s parasha. The hooks that attach to the vertical boards which form the courtyard of the mishkan (tabernacle) are called vavei ha’amudim. A vav is a hook. It’s also the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, shaped liked a hook. The letters themselves, teach the rabbis, stand up straight, proud, and eternal.
Seventy Shoah Torah scrolls gathered in New York this week. Straight, proud, and eternal. They’re housed in Jewish communities of all stripes and of varying beliefs and viewpoints. The Torah – her words and letters – are the very thing that unites us. Our job is to continue to wrap and envelope Torah with love, with joy, with fire that warms and illuminates and protects.