On Shavuot, we are reminded that the Torah is a Tree of Life to which we are to hold fast. But what happens when that hold slips from your grasp?
LOS ANGELES — On Shavuot, we are reminded that the Torah is a tree of life to which we are to hold fast. But what happens when that tree slips from your grasp?
It’s a question I found myself asking six weeks before Shavuot, late in the Torah service on the last day of Passover.
Returning with my wife, Brenda, to Temple Beth Emet, in Anaheim, Calif., where I grew up, we both had come to attend the Yizkor service and to see her family who continue to pray there. Not far from Disneyland, it’s a shrinking kingdom of Jewish memories where, as I walked down the aisle to my seat, I could see my Hebrew school teacher and the familiar faces of those who had been friends of my parents.
A little while after we were seated, the gabbai came down the aisle, blue card in hand, and asked if I wanted to be hagbah — the person raising the Torah after it was read. “Thank you,” I said, accepting the honor.
When my wife joined me, we exchanged notes and found we were to be a Torah team — while she was in the lobby, the gabbai asked her to be gelilah, the person tasked with dressing the Torah.
As the scrolls were taken from the ark, I nudged her, saying the larger of the two scrolls was probably the one I should lift. As I sized it up, I could see that this scroll was longer than the one I had grown accustomed to lifting in my minyan in Los Angeles.
Torah scrolls vary quite a bit in size, from short, sturdy ones weighing only a few pounds, to tall, arm-length versions that can weigh up to about 50 pounds.
Besides being a holy object, a Torah scroll is also expensive, taking a scribe a year or more to write its 304,805 letters by hand, and costing between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on size, quality of script and parchment.
Trying to keep this out of mind, I counted down the aliyot until the completion of the eighth and final reading. Quickly, I walked up the few steps to the bimah where I had chanted, in what seemed like a million turns of the Torah ago, for my Bar Mitzvah.
Grabbing the wooden handles, known as the Trees of Life, I rolled each tight, so that three columns were left showing in the middle. I carefully slid the scroll toward me and then, using the Torah reading table’s edge as a fulcrum, I slid the remaining section down, bent my knees and levered the Torah up. With the handles about even to my shoulders, I turned away from the congregation, so the worshippers could see the writing, and raised the scroll higher.
I took about four steps to the chairs where I was supposed to sit, and where my wife would tie the scroll and dress it.
Only, there was a problem.
“The least stable time during hagbah is right after you sit down,” says the National Chavura Committee’s website, and this is the truth. While lowering my body to sit, I lost the tension between the two halves, and the half in my left hand began to wobble. Thrusting my arm out to steady it only caused the scroll to gyrate more in what began to appear to me as a slow-motion disaster.
One more wobble, and then, my wife, seemingly coming out of nowhere, grabbed the top of the errant roller. Even though the parchment buckled into an S-like shape that widened my eyes, she stopped its fall.
“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,” says the Book of Proverbs, “and whoever holds onto her is happy.”
That day, I was ecstatic to be part of a team: a husband and wife, who had long been juggling work, children, family and Judaism, coming together, after some juggling of my own, finally to take grasp of the Torah and own it.