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The Sacred Scroll
Rosh HaShanah II, 5768/2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

It has become my pattern over these past couple of years to draw your attention to one of the pillars in the sanctuary and the core value it represents. In a moment, I will continue that pattern, focusing on the pillar over my right shoulder, on the left edge of your view of the pulpit. Some of you can't see it at all from your seats back there in Springfield, and most of you cannot see any detail at all. So I have reproduced it on the back cover of the reflections booklet, and you can find a much clearer reproduction in the booklet produced for the pillars campaign.

The pillar illustrates a commitment to Torah, and it was dedicated by two very dear people in this congregation. Albert and Eva Chaiken have been extraordinarily and quietly generous in more ways that I can mention. During his lifetime, Al enjoyed an abundance of success and used it for the benefit of family and the institutions he loved, most notably the Israel Tennis Centers. Along with Eve, and continuing after his death, the Chaikens have been a part of every good cause they encountered in the Jewish community. I hope I do not embarrass Eve by emphasizing that there is no particular self-interest in their gift. They were not blessed with children of their own. They spent half of every year in Palm Springs and traveled frequently as well. And their spiritual life, though rich, was not traditional in the "I-come-to-shul-every-week" sense. Many of you belong to this community out of a commitment to community, not as consumers of goods and services. I offer you my thanks and admiration for the gifts of many kinds you give, and for the vote of confidence that your membership in our congregation represents.

Parenthetically, I want to mention that it was a conscious decision on my part not to go out of order and talk about the most recently dedicated pillar, which stands in memory of Nathan Pitkin and Ron Pitkin. The memorial will be more permanent, I think, if it becomes part of the regular cycle of synagogue culture than if I were to exploit the intensity of feeling surrounding the tragedy that resulted in this dedication.

A number of my colleagues are in the practice of asking their congregants what they think the rabbi should talk about on the High Holy Days – and then they write sermons based on that input. I have discussed the research technique with them, and it seems to work pretty well in many Midwestern cities and smaller communities. My impression is that it doesn't work so well in New York and LA for different reasons. I can tell you that it does not work in Alexandria, VA.

It's not that I have tried it, mind you. It is that in a metropolitan area overrun by politicians and lobbyists, no one actually waits for me to ask. I am approached with some regularity by people who want me to address not just a certain topic, but to do so by promoting a particular perspective. I am going to give you a couple of examples without attaching any names. To the two congregants who will recognize their positions, I assure you that only people you yourself have told about our conversations will know who you are.

Today's topic is Torah. One particular member insists with some regularity that the authority of Torah is such that our attitude can be summed up in one Yiddish word: geshribben! I translate that word as "it is written," but it doesn't capture the sense of authority that comes with the black fire written on white fire that is the text of the Torah. My partner in conversation does not deny the value of Oral Torah or commentaries, but holds fast to the tree of life which is the plain meaning of the text.

Another member has very little patience with the archaic and ancient process of trying to squeeze fresh juice out of ancient fruit. This person has deep respect for the Torah, but not when it seems to demand something so contrary to what we acknowledge now to be the truth. She or he sees no reason to twist and turn through thousands of years of interpretation just to reach conclusions that are obvious to an informed citizen of the century. To this person, the most important verse in the Bible is Psalm 119, verse 126: Eit la'asot laH'; heifeiru toratekha, "it is time to do God's will; uproot your Torah."

There is a certain irony in these competing visions. Part of that irony is that, at some level, I agree with both of them. Listening to my synopsis of two longer exchanges, you might think that I am talking out of both sides of my mouth when I say that, but rest assured that lots of people much wiser than I see the essential truth in both positions. What I do not hear – though you may – is an exclusive truth in either position.

The Torah that this pillar represents is not the very broad use of the word – that is, the universe of Jewish learning and discourse – but primarily the scroll itself and its contents. Some of you may remember a Rosh HaShanah many years ago when a carefully-balanced scroll came uncarefully unbalanced and tumbled to the ground in the ark. There was a good deal of agitation about what should be done in response, with any number of individuals insisting on communal fasts or some such thing in the most belligerent terms. The anxiety reminded me of a dramatic moment in an otherwise funny movie starring Gene Wilder as a frontier rabbi, "The Frisco Kid." The rabbi risks his life to save a Torah scroll and has an existential crisis when he realizes he hesitated to do the same for his best friend. In both situations, one very real and the other completely fictional, the genuine holiness of the scroll seemed to exceed the genuine holiness of human beings.

Just as the holiness of the Torah seemed to tumble out of the ark on that day years ago, the holiness of the Torah scroll seems to tumble out onto everything that comes in contact with it. Eitz chayyim hi lamachazikim ba, it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, we chant, each time we bid a reluctant farewell to the scroll in the ark. People who touch the wooden handles or who caress the back side of the parchment tend to look at their hands afterwards, as if expecting to see evidence of their sacred contact. I will never forget a moment in the Kavvanah minyan we used to conduct when we gave each participant a chance to hold the scroll, and how some people were actually in tears from the power of the experience. And I can recall my own deep sense of violation when I was in college and teaching Sunday School and a fellow teacher took a scroll of the Torah and rolled it down the center aisle of the sanctuary in front of his sixth grade students. He said to them, "See! Nothing happened!" Well, something happened. He was fired that same day.

I hope not to shock you when I tell you that there is nothing inherently sacred about a Torah scroll. Broken down to its component parts, it is animal skin, home-made ink and thread made of gut. Only by virtue of a human being's efforts to assemble those parts in a particular way does the disposable become the indispensable. Only by and with our consent does one man's year-long compulsion become our eternal treasure.

And that, of course, begs the question of why it is so important to construct a scroll in a particular way, out of particular materials and in a particular context. The fact is that a scanner and a high-end printer could spit out a decent facsimile of the Torah scroll for a fraction of a fraction of the cost of a sofeir investing a year of his life to plod through the handwriting of a very familiar text. Why is it that these artificial constructs have any meaning at all, let alone sacred significance?

Consider the analogy of the woman's handbag, which is relevant to you if you are a woman or looking to buy a gift for a woman. You can invest hundreds of dollars in a Salvatore Ferragamo, Fendi, Louis Vuitton or Kate Spade designer shoulder bag, or spend ten or twenty dollars at a kiosk outside the Foggy Bottom Metro stop and have one that works just as well and, to the uninitiated eye, looks identical. Sidebar to the man considering such a gift to the woman you love: her eye is initiated.

What is the worth of the genuine article if functionally there is no difference in a knock-off and the quality of the materials is similar? You might say that to the consumer, the difference is minimal, but to the designer it is essential – a feeling of theft and betrayal reverberates with the sale of every Fake Spade.

In a consumer-driven society, a person has to be willing to rise above his or her own interests to pay the exorbitant prices demanded by Gucci and Prada, or have a desire for some sort of snob appeal. If your standard is utilitarian, then the best functional return on your dollar is the only measure of decision-making. If the folks at Coach are unhappy with the competition, let them join the game rather than complain. It is a familiar refrain in our society, especially among those for whom the free-market economy is not just a fact but a philosophy of life.

We tend not to have a lot of sympathy for fashion designers and their extravagant creations. But we do have sympathy for authors and artists, innovators and inventors, all sorts of creative minds who provide the livelihood for the many of you who work in patent and trademark law. Though it is hard to articulate, I think, there is some part of us that transcends the mere demands of the laws that protect intellectual property. We understand that the phrase "I have a dream" carries with it more than four generic words; it is a piece of the man who said those words. We understand that when we begin a sentence with "Ask not…" or we end it with "…tear down that wall" we are preserving more than an idea, more than cultural reference, more than a moment in history. Dr. King, President Kennedy, President Reagan flicker to life again for an instant when the words we have made sacred are resurrected.

Allow me to add parenthetically that the opposite is true as well. Just as you cannot appropriate the words of heroes and claim that they are without resonant meaning, you cannot appropriate the words of villains and claim that they are your words and nothing more. "Rich Jews are trying to force us into an unwanted war" is not an innocent opinion or an historically neutral term, even when spoken by a friend. Someone flickers to life when those words are used as well.

The Talmud affirms (Yevamot), "When a wise person's teachings are spoken in the world of the living, his lips tingle in the world-to-come."

Please let me take you to the next step in this consideration of Torah. Thirty years ago I had the distinct pleasure to study a section of tractate Bava Kamma (87a) with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of the great minds of our movement. It was very early in the rabbinic education of my class, and he felt it was critical to us as Conservative Jews to learn the story of Rav Yosef bar Hiyya who lived in the third and fourth centuries. Rav Yosef became blind as an adult, but continued his life of pious observance of the commandments. Let me make his lips tingle; this particular teaching was attributed to him:

I used to say: If someone would tell me that the halakhah is in accordance with R. Judah who declared that a blind person is exempt from the commandments, I would make a party for the Rabbis, because though I am not obligated [to observe them,] I still perform the commandments [out of love and devotion]. But now I have heard the statement of R. Hanina, as R. Hanina said: Greater is the one who is obligated to do mitzvot and does them than one who is NOT obligated to do mitzvot and does them [anyway out of free will]. If someone would tell me that the halakhah is NOT in accordance with R. Judah I would make a party for the Rabbis, because if I am obligated to perform commandments the reward will be greater for me.

What sounds like a cute story about a rabbi who has come to terms with his disability is the essence of the message today. The person whose actions, however admirable, are done to reflect on his own personal qualities is judged by the utilitarian value of his actions alone. It is, of course, admirable to go beyond the letter of the law in matters of personal devotion and love – but only if there is a letter of the law to go beyond. The individuals who make up the society that upholds the obligations of the right and the good, those individuals who meet their obligations when there is no reflected glory in doing the right thing, they are the ones who understand that the world is not about them. It is not about their cleverness, their power, their inventiveness, their reputation. It is about doing the right thing even when it is not in your personal interest. It is about doing the things that serve eternal values, not temporal ones.

For us, collectively, those eternal values are preserved in the Torah. And once again, I used the word not in its broadest sense, but in its narrowest – these scrolls so lovingly prepared, inscribed, and maintained. These scrolls that represent the beginning of adulthood to our newest teenagers. These scrolls that you reach out to touch and kiss and bow and point to. These scrolls in which you take such pride that you inscribed one letter, that you can read one set of verses, that you can lift high as the congregation affirms its fidelity.

The scroll, of course, is not just an icon. It is not meant to be an object of mindless veneration. That would be Torah-worship – Toralatry – worshipping the work of human hands. It is the words, the ideas, the concepts contained within that hold the genuine value. And we craft the vessel that contains them to demonstrate our commitment to more than the appearance; rather, to the wholeness. When a tanner prepares the parchment, when a scribe mixes the ink, when a congregation adorns the scroll with silver, when a new Torah reader – or a veteran – approaches to read with awe and trepidation, the authenticity of the experience is dependent on the whole of it, which is, as you know, greater than the sum of the parts.

The currency of our commitment is contained in a troublesome word I have snuck into this sermon a few times already: it is mitzvah. I have spoken about mitzvah many times, and I have spoken about the difference between mitzvot, our religious obligations, and mitzves, the good deeds we do for other people. Believe me, if someone in our ancient tradition would have taught that one who does mitzves is greater than one who performs mitzvot, I would throw a party for the rabbis, and the cantors, too.

Mitzvah used to be universally understood as a commandment from God. For all the arguing our sages did about how the mitzvot came to be, they certainly understood that doing them expressed God's will. But what makes the word troublesome today is that none of you actually believe in a system of actions that reflect God's commanded will. You don't. And if I am going to be honest, I probably don't either – at least not by the standards of our ancestors. Each of us has redefined what we mean by mitzvah, and the result is a conversation among people without a common vocabulary.

Our movement, Conservative Judaism, finds itself in troubled times precisely because of this misunderstanding among us. Those who understand mitzvah quite literally – the ones who would endorse my first interlocutor who cries geshribben! – have a common understanding of the word. And they are Orthodox. Not all people who attend Orthodox synagogues are Orthodox, but all people who believe in the long-standing insistence that what is written in the Torah is infallible and the way we express it is unchangeable are Orthodox.

Those who understand mitzvah as a very fluid process – the ones who would endorse my other interlocutor who wants to dispense with the shackles of yesteryear – have a common understanding of the word. They are those who have stripped mitzvah of its obligatory nature and consider it, therefore, completely optional, and they are Reform. Not all people who attend Reform temples are Reform, but all people who believe that personal autonomy is absolute and therefore any practice is a matter of free choice are Reform.

Most of us are Orthodox about some things and Reform about others

But what is the language of mitzvah that gives us common understanding as Conservative Jews? Quite honestly, I am at a loss to offer a simple reply, but I want to return to the phrase "the currency of our commitment." It is not that which we do to prove how diligent we can be about following orders, nor that which we do to prove how creative we can be in inventing new expressions of piety. Mitzvah is the way we accept the obligation to preserve what we consider eternal, what we consider greater than mere self-interest.

It is what impels us to choose between full price for the designer original handbag and the bargain price for a utilitarian purse of non-descript manufacture because we recognize the difference between them is more than appearance. It is what makes us conscious of the words we choose to express ourselves and how they link us to great ideas and great people or, God forbid, to purveyors of human misery. It is what makes us rejoice in the demands of community rather than asking, "yeah, but what's in it for me?"

Mitzvah involves sacrifice of some kind – sacrifice of the precious commodities in our lives. It involves sacrifice of money you want for something else. It involves sacrifice of talents that could bring you personal benefit at the expense of others. It involves sacrifice of time you might otherwise spend on yourself.

It is that which gives us the satisfaction of being authentic rather than the gratification of being indulged. It is the currency of our commitment.

On the pillar that stands over my right shoulder, on the left of your field of vision, are representations of the many things that Torah authenticates. Shabbat and holidays. A place in history. A secure future. The blessing of a new generation. Eternal light and eternal life. And in the middle of the papercut, Tamar Fishman, the artist, has engraved words that we read as part of last week's weekly portion: kitvu lakhem et ha-shirah hazot v'lamdah et b'nai yisra'el; write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel; simah b'fihem l'ma'an tih'yeh li ha-shirah hazot la'eid; place it in their mouths so that this song will be as a witness for me.

The authenticity of those words cannot be transmitted by a paper Torah. They must be crafted by loving hands, willing to spend the currency of commitment to preserve them. They must be read by trembling voices, willing to spend the currency of commitment to proclaim them. They must be practiced by those who recognize their worth, willing to spend the currency of commitment to make God's lips tingle and to make a blind man see the light.

Some of you, I know, buy the Fake Spade purses at the Foggy Bottom Metro stop. Honestly, I have on occasion spent my ten and twenty dollars there instead of at a florist or a chocolatier. And some of you sitting in front of me are utilitarian in your approach to this congregation and Jewish life in general. You are consumers of Jewish commodities – Hebrew school, gooey brownies at Kiddush, the angelic voice of our Hazzan, an eternal resting place in a prestigious zip code. Listen, I am glad you are here, and Agudas Achim – that is, I and my partners in this community – will serve you as best we can, with pleasure. But we will not settle for a paper torah, and we will try not to let you settle for it either.

As I do with the Chaikens, whose generosity is fulfilled in the currency of commitment, I applaud those of you who maintain a membership here because of what the institution represents in your life, because of what it represents about your place in Jewish history, because of what it represents in securing a Jewish future. That is, I applaud those of you who are invested in crafting a sacred document out of mundane materials and understanding that in doing so, you achieve nothing less than full partnership with the Holy One of Blessed Name.

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