Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Clinging to our Tree of Life

Firefighters salvage 100-year-old Torah from Boca Raton house fire (Palm Beach County Fire Rescue)

This week, I came across the remarkable story of a family in Boca Raton, Florida that had featured on several news bulletins; Paul and Tammy Clarke’s family home had caught fire and in a matter of a few hours their house and almost everything they owned went up in smoke.

As they stood outside their once beautiful home witnessing their possessions, the ordinary, the valuable and the sentimental disappearing in flames, a fireman emerged from their destroyed house and presented them with their 100 year old family Torah scroll.

He told the astonished family that despite the fire, the smoke and the hundreds of gallons of water used to extinguish the flames, somehow the Torah Scroll had managed to survive intact.

The family were overjoyed, and the fireman was baffled as to why this ancient scroll of parchment should bring such joy, amidst the destruction and loss of so many other possessions that surrounded them in the burnt remnants of their home.

We begin this week a period of national mourning over another home that was burned, our first and second temples. The mourning period we experience as a nation is not so much over the destruction of bricks and mortar of the two  Temples, physical things can always be replaced or rebuilt, but is more to do with what that loss and our subsequent exile represents.

The Temple was the home we built for the Almighty’s presence to dwell in this world, the Temple was the space we made for the Divine presence to dwell in our lives.  Its loss symbolized the fact we were no longer worthy of that continued close bond and connection.

Over the course of the millennia there have  been two diametrically opposite approaches that our nation has taken in terms of the world we live in. They can be loosely defined as the “universal” as opposed to the “particular” approach.

For so much of our history we had no choice in the way we lived, and survived  within Non Jewish nations . We faced harsh persecution, isolation and alienation and found ourselves nomadic as we were kicked from one place to another.  By default, we were forced to take the “particular” approach, living separately in shtetls and ghettos, depicted as second class citizens as we  lived, worked and socialized in the main with only our own kind. We were, in the words of Bilaam “a nation that dwells alone.” Inevitably, we had a constant awareness of our Jewish identity and very strong sense of community.

Emancipation transformed the fortunes and opportunities for Jews. By the end of the nineteenth century Vienna, Berlin and Prague had turned into academic and cultural centers with Jews playing prominent roles  Jews were able to move about freely, they migrated to those cities where they had better opportunities to earn a living, expand their businesses, study or start a career. This was a period of universalism, Jews in western Europe became integrated and assimilated into wider society. By 1925 in Germany, 26 per cent of all lawyers and 15 per cent of all doctors were Jewish, yet Jews constituted only one per cent of the general population.

Yet despite the academic excellence, cultural achievements and pride Jews enjoyed in Western Europe, it came at a price – with many abandoning the Jewish identity which was felt to have held them back for far too long.

The results of the “universalist” experiment was nothing short of disastrous. Thousands of Jews were lost to our nation. Having deluded themselves that becoming “more German than the Germans” was the insurance policy against the treatment of Jews for centuries.

Yet as the Holocaust unfolded,  in the concentration camps and the death  camps, Jews  from Eastern  and Western Europe met.  No longer could they be recognised apart as they had been stripped of everything they owned. Their status and positions, their wealth and possessions, were for nothing, like their unassimilated Eastern European kin, they were left with only a number on their arms. However, it was in those camps, stripped bare of their previous lives, that many discovered who they were and what it meant to be a Jew.

The Talmud tells us of another time in our history, when Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon went to visit Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma whom had been taken sick.  Rabbi Kisma said, “Chanaya my brother, don’t you know that this nation [the Roman Empire] has been empowered by Heaven, allowed to destroy His House, burn his Sanctuary, kill His pious ones.  They will burn you and the Sifrei Torah together…”

Indeed, the Roman Empire wreaked destruction upon the Jewish Community, sparing no one.  Certainly not Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon.  True to Rabbi Kisma’s vision, Rabbi Chananya was burned at the stake, wrapped in the blessed Torah scroll.  The Romans had placed moist cotton over his heart to prolong the process of his death, increasing his pain and agony.

As the righteous Rabbi was burning with the Sefer Torah, the Romans mocked him by deriding him with the obvious.  “Oh, teacher.  Do you see the flames consuming you?”

His disciples came close, feeling the heat from the fire as they drew closer still.  “Rabbi, what do you see?”

Incredibly, a smile flickered across the rabbi’s lips.  “I see the parchment being consumed by the flames,” he said.  “But the letters… the letters I see flying off.  They remain.”

It is precisely at times of tremendous adversity and ordeal that we sometimes are able to arrive at a fresh appreciation as to who we are and the blessings that we have in our lives

As the Clarke family stood watching their house and possessions go up in flames, they managed to focus not so much on what they had lost, but what had been saved.  That precious family  heirloom, their Sefer Torah, passed from generation to generation was miraculously saved, a message of hope and consolation to them and to us as to the essence and purpose of life.

It is never the things we can buy in this world that has lasting value . For Jews it is about a clear emphasis on the transcendence in the letters of the Torah, and   the space we create in all aspects of our busy  lives for our faith and for G-d, this is what can never be taken away, – no matter what life throws at us.

We sing when we return the Torah to the Ark every Shabbat

“Eitz Chayim hi lemachazakim ba” – the Torah is the Tree of Life for those who hold onto it. The comparison of our faith to a tree is well known. We are the leaves of that tree, and as long we remain attached we are invincible,  but if we become detached from that life source, despite the short lived new found freedom, leaves quickly flutter to the ground, whither and die.

And so it is with us now. We can grow however we like, no longer do we need to be confined and live isolated from the rest of society, but once we disconnect from our life force, our Torah, like the leaf on the tree, we flutter, we shrivel, and we eventually get lost and brushed away.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.
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