The Torah is the soul of the Jewish people. It is our sacred story, written on a scroll and in our hearts. The Torah, or Five Books of Moses, binds the Jewish people together across place and time. It tells a tale so massive, so all-encompassing that every Jewish person finds him or herself within it.
Some Jews believe the Torah to be the word of God; others believe it to be a human construction. All Jews hold the Torah, and the Hebrew language in which it is written, to be sacred. The Torah’s Hebrew shows us that the text is open to interpretation. Since the words are written without vowels and the verses without punctuation, there are undoubtedly different ways to understand them. Judaism has never believed in an exclusively literalist reading of Scripture; we understand that multiple possibilities exist, and can even be simultaneously correct. Indeed, we celebrate them.
My community’s scroll is 150 years old, and was written in Czechoslovakia. The Hebrew letters are black, and in some light they appear brown or purple. They are delicate and strong, crisp and fancy without being frilly. They seem to dance on the page. As I roll the Torah each week to prepare for the Sabbath, the words flash across my eyes, and I wonder about all the people who read them before me: bar and bat mitzvah students in recent decades at Temple Emanuel of Tempe, and the European Jews who first commissioned it. What’s become of all those people? What were their lives like? On what occasions did they read these particular words? It is a great honor to come into such regular and close contact with an antique scroll.
What is this extraordinary object, this thing made of skin, wood and ink that is powerful enough to bind our people together across time and place? What is its hold on us? The words call to us across the millennia. They are sometimes beautiful and sometimes upsetting. They can articulate incomprehensible Truths, or challenge our sensibilities of equality and nonviolence. And yet they matter to us profoundly.
The Torah scroll is a container. It holds the stories and rules that define us. To be Jewish means that the Torah’s story is your story, that you see yourself within it and know that it speaks to you even when you’re not listening. In this way, the ideas of the Torah have defined us and sustained us throughout the millennia. We are ever in conversation with them, and can never turn our backs on them.
Since Abraham and Sarah took their first steps towards the west, Jews have been a travelling people. There is much we couldn’t take in our vagabond’s bags; for most of our history, wealth, power and land have been inaccessible to us. But we have been able to carry ideas, and to transmit them from generation to generation. The Torah teaches us who we are, how to exist in relationship with others, and how to connect with the force, called God, which animates the Universe and which is at once transcendent and intimate.
The Festival of Shavuot, June 4 this year, marks the giving and receiving of Torah. Coming seven weeks after Passover, it signals that our freedom is richest when it is tempered by law. Shavuot celebrates more than a document. It celebrates the ties that bind us to each other, to our land, and to our God. It is customary to spend the entire night studying, especially the Book of Ruth.
The Torah is a mirror in which we see ourselves. The Torah is a chain in which we are a link. The Torah is a map through which we locate ourselves. The Torah is a living tree of which we are part. The Torah defines us as a people.
More than the Torah belongs to us, we belong to the Torah.
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his “Rabbi Dean Shapiro” page on Facebook.