Fasting for a Dropped Sefer Torah Is Cathartic (Shabbos 87)

David is new to shul and offered hagba (the raising of the Torah). It’s painful to watch. He can barely lift the Sefer Torah, almost drops it, and sits down very quickly.  Feeling very embarrassed about the episode, he resolves to go home and work out.  For the next few months, he lifts weights, does push ups, sit ups and pull ups.

Finally, he feels ready to face the kehillah once more.  The next Shabbos, off he goes, pumped and all set to make amends.  All of a sudden he hears the gabbai call his name.  He rushes up to the bima, grabs the Sefer Torah, lifts it and opens it up wide, showing ten columns of the Torah. He pivots to the left and then to the right.

Proudly, he turns to the gabbai and says, “Nu, what do you think?”
“Well, your hagba was amazing,” responds the gabbai, “but I called you up for shlishi.”

תַנְיָא: שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה מִדַּעְתּוֹ, וְהִסְכִּים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עִמּוֹ. הוֹסִיף יוֹם אֶחָד מִדַּעְתּוֹ, וּפֵירַשׁ מִן הָאִשָּׁה, וְשָׁבַר אֶת הַלּוּחוֹת. שָׁבַר אֶת הַלּוּחוֹת, מַאי דְּרַשׁ? אָמַר: וּמָה פֶּסַח שֶׁהוּא אֶחָד מִתַּרְיָ״ג מִצְוֹת, אָמְרָה תּוֹרָה: ״וְכׇל בֶּן נֵכָר לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ״. הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ [כָּאן] וְיִשְׂרָאֵל מְשׁוּמָּדִים — עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה. וּמְנָלַן דְּהִסְכִּים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל יָדוֹ? — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ״, וְאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ.

Moses did three things based on his own logic, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, agreed with him. He added one day to the days of preparation before the revelation at Sinai based on his own logic. And he separated from his wife. And he broke the tablets. When he broke the tablets, what source did he interpret that led him to do so? Moses said: With regard to the Paschal lamb, which is only one of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, the Torah stated: “no alien shall eat of it”.  In this instance, the entire Torah was being treated by Israel as apostates (as they were worshipping the Golden Calf), all the more so. And from where do we derive that the Holy One, Blessed be He, agreed with him? As it is stated: “The first tablets which you broke (asher shibarta)”, and Reish Lakish said: The meaning is, “Yasher koach for breaking the tablets!”

We have all stood in shul watching nervously as an individual who should not have been given hagba wobbles his way through the act.  Who has not thought, “Uh oh, if he drops this, we will all be fasting for forty days?”  While I have never witnessed a dropped Torah personally, I have heard of an incident, and the perpetrator was not Mr. Popular in the shul after that.

But when Moshe dropped the Tablets, Hashem did not condemn his actions.  Instead, he responded ‘Yasher koach!’ For it was not Moshe’s fault that he dropped the Tablets.  The Israelites were responsible.  They built the Golden Calf and rebelled against Heaven.  Our Sages tell us that the Tablets were so heavy that Hashem sent angels to accompany Moshe down the mountain for support.  When the angels witnessed the awful spectacle, they arose to Heaven, leaving the Tablets to slip out of poor Moshe’s hands.

Our Sages’ message is that, strictly speaking, it was not Moshe who chose to break the Tablets.  Once he arrived at the scene, it was automatic.  And so if you should ever, God forbid, see someone drop the Torah, the first thing you must acknowledge is that it is not the fault of the individual who dropped it.  It has been decreed from Heaven.  Just like Moshe’s response to the shortcomings of the Israelites, if the Torah ever drops, it is an indication that the congregation is wanting in some way.  And just like the teshuvah that ensued at Sinai, the Torah’s fall should lead the congregation to a period of introspection, which is the purpose of fasting.

That is the reason for the Almighty’s declaration of ‘Yasher koach’ to Moshe.  He was not guilty for dropping the Tablets; he was the vehicle providing the Israelites with the opportunity to do teshuvah for their misbehaviour.  Similarly, the correct response to the falling of a Sefer Torah is ‘Yasher koach!  Thank you for initiating a moment of spiritual introspection in our congregation.’

The same is true of any challenging situation that a community finds itself in.  We can always find someone to point fingers at.  Who didn’t switch the yahrzeit lights on?  Who didn’t remember to bring the shul key on time?  Who was responsible for cleaning up after the kiddush?  Whose fault is it that fewer people are coming to daily minyan?  Who should be taken to task for the decrease in membership this year?

If things are not working efficiently in the community, don’t look for individuals to blame.  When the Torah drops, it is not the individual that must do teshuvah; it is the entire community.  The fellow who had hagba was the congregation’s Moshe Rabbeinu, the Divine emissary, sent from Sinai to awaken the people from their slumber.

Next time it appears that an individual has ruined the situation for everyone, go and give them a big Yasher koach!  Apart from making them feel better for their ‘blunder,’ your words will remind all present that they are collectively responsible for the incident.  May you always remember that community growth and prosperity begins when the members work together and assume collective responsibility!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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