A letter in the scroll

Last Shabbat, time stood still. A Torah scroll brought everything to a screeching halt.

No, I didn’t make a sighting of the Women of the Wall parading a Torah scroll at the Kotel, I wish I could write that I did, because it seems that if you want your blog post noticed, just write about the Women of the Wall. It doesn’t really matter what you write, which side of the divide you’re on, or whether you’re opinion makes sense. Just write about the Women of the Wall and you’re in. And if you can’t write about the Women of the Wall, then you can still increase your chances by attacking Haredim, attacking Reform Jews, saying why you’ll never make aliyah, attacking someone who just said they’ll never make aliyah, or just attacking the person next to you. When the sparks fly, the Facebook likes grow exponentially.

Unfortunately, I have no flying sparks to report. Just a little old Torah scroll, or to be precise, a half a letter of it. Last Shabbat morning, I was following along as a friend and neighbor read from the Torah, when he stopped abruptly in mid-sentence. Just quit reading, cold turkey. A half-dozen people rushed up as if ready to put out a fire, and for the next minute they alternated between examining the Torah scroll intently and conferring with each other in hushed tones. Then, without fanfare, the scroll was rolled up and put back in the Ark. A new scroll took its place and the reading continued as if this is how it’s done every Shabbat.

For the uninitiated, here’s what happened: The Torah is the lifeblood of our people. Our tradition holds that the Torah we have today is the same as God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. If you’re reading the very same words that Moses got from The Guy Upstairs and have now been entrusted to little old you, that’s kind of a serious thing. So when a new Torah scroll is written, we don’t take its creation lightly.

Among other requirements, the sofer (scribe) must write each letter with full concentration and purity of thought. And if just one letter is mistaken, missing or even partially damaged in some way, the Torah is not considered kosher. One letter missing, and the entire scroll is disqualified. Nothing is superfluous in the Torah – even one little letter matters.

AyinOr in this case, a mere half a letter. It turns out that half of an Ayin, the 16th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was obscured. And because of that half a letter – one stroke of the quill on the parchment – every single other letter in that scroll lost its power that Shabbat morning.

If one missing letter can so diminish an entire Torah scroll, what happens when one Jew stands on the sidelines of the Jewish people? It’s not an academic question, but one that is urgently relevant for our times.

Jewish tradition holds that each Jewish soul is akin to a letter in the Torah. Each Jewish soul is charged with a unique role and purpose that no other soul can fulfill. Just like a Torah scroll with a missing letter, the Jewish people cannot fulfill its mission, cannot fully serve its collective purpose in the world, if even one person has gone AWOL.

This concept stretches back to our days in Egypt. When Moses requests a leave of absence for the Jewish people, Pharoah asks, “Who will be going?” to which Moses replies, “We will all go, young and old, with our sons and daughters.” Everyone matters. No one is superfluous.

A beautiful idea – on paper. But most of us don’t live our lives by this reality. We often live as if the reality were the opposite, as if we can get along just fine no matter who we exclude or who falls off the map.

When I led a Jewish Federation, I lost count of the speeches, conferences and meetings where someone’s opinion about the “mainstream” Jewish world would inevitably be prefaced with the phrase “except for the Orthodox.” As if they weren’t part of the mainstream, didn’t matter, didn’t share in the same story. I’ve been privy to far too many conversations where the Orthodox have been characterized as the “other” – and usually while the speaker is invoking the mantle of “pluralism.”

The Orthodox, for their part, haven’t done much better. I’ve lost count of the remarks I’ve heard from my Orthodox brethren that the non-Orthodox world is assimilating, that only “we Orthodox” will be around in a few years, that the intermarried are “lost forever.” Sometimes it’s said with a sense of triumph, occasionally with a touch of sadness, but usually with a shrug of the shoulders. I have heard too many Reform and Conservative Jews, on the other hand, act as if everything’s just rosy when the Jewish boy marries the Catholic girl and they give the kids a bit of both.

Mass numbers of the Jewish people are disappearing from view and the best we can do is either yawn or smile? As if it won’t affect us – deeply?

As someone who was intermarried and on the margins of Jewish life for 16 years, but whose wife and children all became Orthodox Jews and were not “lost forever,” I see the Jewish people’s predicament with different eyes. We shouldn’t be writing anyone off – because Jewish transformation is possible even when it seems the most unlikely. Nor should we be pretending that people on the margins are anywhere but on the margins – because we can’t change a reality we refuse to face.

Of course, there is a fundamental difference between a Jewish soul and a letter in a Torah scroll. When part of an Ayin is missing, we can swoop in and make it whole without requesting the Ayin’s permission. People, however, have free will. We cannot change them if they don’t want to change. We can only set an example and hope they will follow.

But we cannot hope to effect change when we’re too busy pretending that whole segments of our people don’t really exist or are beyond help. What if, like the Torah scroll on that Shabbat morning, our Jewish lives stopped for a moment when we came across a Jew who is removed from Judaism? What if we didn’t resume our Jewish lives until we devoted at least a little energy to giving him the opportunity to make his life more Jewish? That Shabbat invitation, that time taken to discuss their questions, even that little smile you give them, could be the one seemingly small gesture that tips the balance.

This coming Shabbat, I expect that the Torah will be read without interruption because the Torah scroll will be whole and perfect, every letter in its place. Imagine what we might accomplish if we brought about a time when this could be said of the Jewish people.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.