The Fire and the Scrolls

Torah scrolls, the most sacred objects in Judaism since the Great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Legions 1,947 years ago, are often compared to human beings. In fact, the Torah scrolls that occupy the holy arks of every synagogue in the world are often adorned with elaborate silver breastplates and a crown, reminding us of the clothing of the Great Priest who served in the Temple when it stood.

Furthermore, when a person passes away, one of the greatest honors that his or her family can bestow upon them is to have a Torah scroll written in their honor. It can take nearly a year for the writing of the scroll, and the community brings it to its resting place in the Holy Ark with great celebration and rejoicing.

Last week, twenty-three Torah scrolls were stacked up in a single room at Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. The heavy, hand-made books of vellum had been literally plucked out of harm’s way, taken from a number of temples that were in direct line of the massive fires sweeping across the hillsides of West Los Angeles last week.

Envisioning this inferno, raging across the Los Angeles hill country, conjures up a simple but not very mathematical equation:

Reality = facts + symbolism

The real essence of a story is not just in its factual details: one must take into consideration the echoes of symbolism that it generates.

The Talmud brings us a famous story about a man, a Torah scroll, and fire. It takes place during the Roman Hadrianic persecutions in the Land of Israel some 1,882 years ago. Rabbi Hanina the son of Teradyon was caught by the Roman authorities with a Torah scroll on his lap, teaching Torah in public. This was a criminal offense, since the ruling Romans had outlawed any teaching or reading of the Torah.

In response, the Roman soldiers wrapped the Torah scroll around him, and stood him up in pile of dry wood. They soaked bundles of wool in water and draped them over his heart, in order to keep him alive so as to prolong his suffering. When all was ready, they lit the bonfire. As the flames danced around the elderly rabbi wrapped in the Torah he so loved, his students said to him, “Rabbi, what do you see?” He said to them, “sheets of parchment burning, and letters flying up into the air!”

As I contemplated the rescued Torah scrolls of California, the people they represent, and the approaching fire, I realized something: they can be understood as an analogy for the American Jewish community itself.

You see: the today’s American Jews are under fire, from two flanks: assimilation on one side, and anti-Semitism on the other. Let’s tackle one bank of flames at a time.

Let’s ask a simple question of the rabbis who were so busy ferrying the Torah scrolls from one temple to the next to keep them out of harm’s way. How many of their current congregants can open up the Torah scroll and read the carefully-crafted Hebrew letters, hand-drawn on parchment sheets in the manner that has been done for nearly 3,300 years? Why, maybe they can be counted on one hand. And of those people, how many can understand the words, the stories, the laws, and the precepts that make up the narrative of the Five Books of Moses contained in those scrolls? Surely the number is now approaching zero. And let us ask: how many of the congregants CARE that they know next to nothing about the Torah that has lifted us up, sustained us, and carried us through national life in our own land, exile, wanderings, persecutions, good times and bad? Well by now you know the answer.

Do people know that in Israel, since the language that elementary schoolchildren, religious or secular, learn, read and speak is the same language of these ancient scrolls – they can open up a Torah scroll and read and understand its timeless language? This shows the connectiveness that is the heritage of every Jewish child in Israel today.

The numbers of Jews in America, according to recent population studies, is dropping rapidly. Since children are no longer learning Jewish connectivity from the generations that precede them, they are far more likely to marry non-Jews who, by definition, know nothing of Judaism. And so the generations propagate – moving farther and farther away from the living body of knowledge, also symbolized by Torah scrolls, that has preserved our people for millennia. The people who do have some form of Jewish identity represent an additional problem – many of them are no longer Jewish according to the system by which the Jewish community throughout the world has for millennia maintained itself.

That is one bank of flames, sweeping over the hills and threatening the living Torah scrolls that are each and every Jew in America. But there is more.

The regularity with which swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans appear on the walls of synagogues, private homes, and college dorm rooms in the US today is unprecedented in the 300 years that Jews have been living in America. Synagogues have become fortresses, because of the gnawing fear of the unknown: what would happen if the community is attacked?

But if that weren’t enough: a new wall of approaching fire is looming on the horizon, one that is not exactly identifiable as classic anti-Semitism. It is called: anti-Zionism, or anti-Israelism. Across university campuses throughout the country, radicalized student organizations, funded by generous gifts of Middle-Eastern money, work without rest for the defamation of Israel and anyone who dare supports the Jewish State.

And they are winning the battle. In fact, they have even managed to bring Jewish students over to their side through carefully-crafted lies presented as facts.

What these two rising infernos, assimilation and anti-Semitism, mean for the future of the millions of unsuspecting Torah scrolls found across the whole wide land that is America – is anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain: there is a ‘holy ark’ out there, far away from the shores of America, with infinite room for every single American Jew. This ark is called the Land of Israel, and though it has its ups and downs, it is an extraordinary success story. In fact, if we are to believe recent social and economic indicators, Israel is just beginning to come of its own.

So as American Jewry travels down the road of its own fate, it should be clear: you are welcome, and wanted, and we will indeed take good care of you should you make the decision to relocate to the ancient Land of your ancestors. Do you have a better idea or offer?

See you soon.

About the Author
Yisrael Rosenberg is a former New Englander who made aliyah 30 years ago. He lives with his wife and four children in Jerusalem.