I wish everyone, all the family of our community and all our friends, Chag Sameach.
Shavuot celebrates the most important relationships at the heart of Judaism, with Torah and God. Through three thousand years of history these have been bonds love, frustration, companionship, incomprehension, solace and joy. Neither degradation and death in the Crusades and the Holocaust, nor life with its allures and strange turnings, have parted us. These are relationships of unbroken collective resilience.
This year we celebrate alone what has always been a night of learning followed by a joyful communal service with Hallel and flowers. This strange circumstance leads me to pondering two very different pictures of Torah.
The first is Chagall’s painting Solitude. Copyright prevents me from including it, but here’s a link.
In the background is a village with towers and steeples covered in dark cloud, possibly smoke from a pogrom or fire. In the left foreground sits an elderly Jew, sorrowful and lonely. He holds a Torah scroll loosely against his heart. Balancing him in the right foreground is a calf, with a sweet face and a violin. They both appear to be outcasts. Yet they each have their music: the calf with her bow and instrument and the Jew with the Torah. I imagine that Torah singing quietly beneath its red cover, as in the Psalm-verse: ‘Your statutes have become my songs’ in the houses of my pilgrimage. In contrast to the dark earth and louring sky, a white angel shares brightness with the old man’s tallit and the gentle calf. There’s yet hope.
In just this way we hold the Torah to our heart because it’s been our music through all generations. When it sings to us, the calves, birds, mountains and valleys sing too. For, despite the testament of history, there is a sacred music half-hidden in all life. ‘Shema, listen,’ hear it and heed it, is Judaism’s simplest, most enduring injunction. This is the Torah of our aloneness.
The other picture is a work of art of a different kind. Last year in our synagogue after Simchat Torah we gathered all the families shortly to celebrate a Bat or Bar Mitzvah in a huge semi-circle. We unrolled a (printed) Torah scroll, which stretched all the way round the group, so that every child sat next to his or her special portion. It was beautiful, and fun. This is the Torah of community and joy.
Torah is with us both in our togetherness and our aloneness.
But togetherness and aloneness meet. I imagine the far end of the Torah scroll, invisible, hidden in the mystery of void and timelessness, held by the unknowable mystery of God. Then I envision Moses holding up the parchment, with Rabbi Akiva a millennium later, then Yehudah Halevi the poet and Maimonides, the philosopher and legalist, a thousand years after that. Four centuries later the mystics of Sefat sing Lecha Dodi as they hold up the parchment, and three hundred years later still the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, raising his arms and spirit to keep the holy text above the flames. Now that scroll reaches us, and it and all our generations call out to our heart. We’re never truly alone when we’re with Torah.
I imagine too a great song with innumerable parts, wind scores and bird scores, child scores and old persons’ scores. Often we don’t hear them, but they all in their different voices sing God’s song, that life is precious and sacred, and that no one and nothing doesn’t matter.
Our bond with Torah is our life’s song too.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom