Then we read in the Gemara that follows:
אמר (רבא) אף על פי שהניחו לו אבותיו לאדם ספר תורה מצוה לכתוב משלו
Said Rabbah: even if one’s ancestors left him or her a scroll of the Torah, it is a religious duty to us write one for ourselves, and the prooftext, from Devarim chapter 31: “Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…”
Even if you inherit a Sefer Torah from your relatives, you still gotta write your own. Why? Now this is the last of the commandments, number 613. We can take this literally, that each of us must actually take quill and parchment in hand and write a Sefer Torah. The halacha is, if you cannot, you can still fulfil this mitzvah by taking part in the making of a Torah scroll, or in the dedication of one at a synagogue—so, there, you all have fulfilled mitzvah number 613 this morning! (I'm not worried about you fulfilling the other 612, I know you will...)
And we can take it metaphorically, though, as if God is saying to us: “It is not enough that you have received the Torah from generations past, not even enough that you have received it from Moses. You must make a new Torah, as to were, in every generation.” We must, as it were, rewrite it ourselves.
Because you must feature in the story. Like those kids books which pop up around Chanukah time where the kids name is inserted into the book when its printed and it becomes Hanukah with Henry or Celebrate with Cindy. Torah with…the Karliner Rebbe taught that every yud in the Torah is a yid, a specific Jew with a specific verse or narrative or poem that is his or hers; that speaks directly to his or her heart.
And we must as it were— re-receive the Torah. Torah can be acquired many times in many ways. At every Bar or Bat Mitzvah, it is received through the eyes of a young just-becoming-knowledgable Jew. At every adult education class it is received again through adult eyes. In every conversion class, it is received as if for the first time, every time.
In a religion almost devoid of sacred objects, without icons and without relics, the Torah scroll is the nearest Judaism comes to endowing anything material with sanctity.
This sacred gift from Shaar Shalom was actually a surprise. At a social dinner with our good friends Paul and Barbara, we spoke about the closing of the shul and I casually asked what happened to all the Torah scrolls. Paul mentioned that they had all been given away but maybe I should write to Barry and just see. Tell a little about City Shul and see. It wasn’t likely, we all agreed— a Reform synagogue, female Rabbi, downtown, new…nah, not going to happen. I wrote a letter describing us—describing the best of us, of course, how traditional we are and how special – and totally forgot about it, not even mentioning it to our chair Jonathan or our administrator Rivka. Two weeks later, Rivka calls me and asks me why a man named Barry is telling her to come and pick up a Torah at Shaar Shalom. And so it was, that a congregation now closing gifted its legacy to a congregation just starting.
But do not think Shaar Shalom is merely passing on a Torah scroll. To make the Torah live in every generation, it is not enough to hand it on, passing it like some hot potato from parent to child, here you catch it!—and seeing it as mere history and law. It’s not enough to be that old photo on the shelf that we take down, dust off and show it to our grandchildren saying “look, this is what your ancestors looked like.” It has to be a living thing that we wrestle with, we grapple with, as if its the first time we have ever read it. It has to speak to our emotions, not just our intellect.
Thats why we at City Shul are so excited about this second Torah scroll. Just two years ago we celebrated the completion of a Sefer Torah commissioned and written especially for us by six female scribes—one for each book, with the woman who began to write Vayikra taking ill and passing away before she could complete it.
Because so much of City Shul feels like fresh new writing on a blank piece of parchment that having a newly written scroll made perfect sense for us.
But this second scroll is totally different, and signals, I think, a sense of solidity, coming to a place with little history bringing its own long history, and asking us to not only continue its history but to create its new history. It comes to us as a parchment that has absorbed the sounds of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah kids—one who is sitting her today, Tamara Rebick—the sound of brides and grooms at their aurfrufs, the sounds of babies being named and new readers stumbling anxiously and Cantors chanting effortlessly and Rabbis wresting meaning and relevance out of its words for those who sat expectantly listening and hoping for a doorway into their Jewish identity. And it will live with us as it absorbs new sounds, Debbie Friedman tunes and women Rabbi voices and downtown hipsters singing and new interpretations flowing.
In this morning’s parsha, Abraham is sitting and convalescing after his bris at the age of 90—and he probably didn’t even get to the chopped liver— when three “angels”appear to him—though in appearance these 3 are fully human, and called in the Hebrew not malachim—angels, but anashim—people.
The text begins with
וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.
The Rabbis want to know why the word “see” is used twice. He looked up and saw them, but then when he saw them, he greeted them. Didn’t he see them the first time? Rabbeynu Bachya answers the question this way:
ראה בחוש העין שלשה אנשים נצבים עליו, והוסיף שנית לשון וירא לבאר כי הוסיף לראות בעין השכל והתבונן בהם והכיר שהם מלאכים.…
He saw with his normal sense of seeing, his everyday lenses as it were, three people standing there…but when a second time he looked with his sechel—his inquiring eye—he understood and recognized that they were angels…
You can see the acquisition of this Torah with your everyday lenses, and thats fine—but you’ll be missing the angels. Or you can see with your inquiring eye, and understand and recognize that there is a Divine hand at work here, and we get the unique opportunity today to run toward it and greet it.
Today, to our visitors from Shaar Shalom, I say, as the midrash in Bereshit Rabba teaches: "Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called men, when they have accomplished that task, they are called angels.” Your task has not been easy and it has not been fun. But you’ve done it valiantly. You have been malachim—messengers—and your message of continuity and commitment will not be lost.