The Sanctity of the Torah

Tazria | Shabbat Hahodesh By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 1, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

It is not often that we read from three sifrei Torah on one Shabbat. But this week Shabbat displays a bit of the pageantry we associate with Simhat Torah because of the convergence of three sacred moments: the regular parasha for the week, Tazri·a; the first day of the new month of Nisan (Rosh Hodesh); and the fourth of the four special Sabbaths before Passover, Shabbat ha-Hodesh. So in addition to the sefer Torah forTazri·a, we take out two other scrolls for the readings from Numbers (28:9-15) and Exodus (12:1-20) appropriate for the occasions. To read from three books of the Torah out of the same scroll would be unwieldy and time-consuming (a lot of holy rolling!). Hence three scrolls, to avoid burdening the congregation with distracting delays.

The pageantry reminds us of the singularity of the scroll. When the codex (the bound book) came to replace the scroll as the preferred form of the book in the fifth century, the synagogue, unlike the church, refused to adopt the advance for the public liturgical reading of its Scriptures. I have always deemed the rejection to be an enhancement of the ritual. The archaic format amplifies the sacredness of the Torah. I love the physicality of being called to the Torah (not to speak of reading from it): kissing the black unvocalized letters, taking hold of the two wooden staves, feeling the raw durability of the parchment and admiring the ordered beauty of the columns of script. I always leave the scroll open as I recite the first berakhah so that my eyes might feast on the primitive authenticity of the letters. Only when the reading is finished and the moment has come to say the second berakhah, do I reluctantly close the scroll. The antiquity of a handwritten manuscript on parchment in scroll form reinforces my reverence for the uniqueness of the Torah.

Not surprisingly, a Torah scroll is the holiest object in Judaism’s religious repertoire. Every Jew is enjoined during the course of his or her lifetime to write (or have written) a sefer Torah, not only as an expression of its supreme value, but also to increase the number of sifrei Torah in the world. The equivalent of the mitzvah for us today is to produce our own commentary to the Torah, testimony to our struggle to relate the Torah to our personal lives. Hence, these weekly comments on the parasha. Your interest and encouragement, for which I am grateful, help me fulfill a critical mitzvah by joining the longest ongoing dialogue in history.

The sanctity of a Torah scroll is marked by the fact that it may be sold for only two reasons-to marry and to study Torah. Neither hunger nor homelessness is deemed sufficient reason for a person to sell a Torah scroll in his or her possession. The exception made for marriage and study, I believe, is because both activities will most likely lead to the continuity of Torah. Our fondest hope at the birth of a new child is that it will find joy and fulfillment in a life of “Torah, marriage and good deeds,” a formula that encompasses Judaism’s central values.

Remarkably, our demeanor toward a scroll of the Torah resembles the way we relate to our children. We clothe it in garments, we carry it caressingly at our bosom and express our love through a kiss. It is the apple of our eye and the center of our attention. On Simhat Torah we dance and sing with the Torah in our arms as we do with our small children. And reciprocally, we seek to bring our children to the study of Torah at the earliest age possible.

The Talmud preserves a Jewish version of Plato’s intriguing myth that all learning is remembering. It is not the entire corpus of human knowledge that the fetus acquires in the womb, but rather the whole Torah. At birth an angel administers a slap and all is forgotten. The deeper meaning of that midrash is that the human spirit is a tiny fragment of the divine spirit. Birth is also separation from God. What we once knew as part of the whole is lost, except for the slightest of predispositions. Study of Torah, the religious quest, our spiritual sensibility, and human consciousness are dim vestiges of whence we came. Death is not the end, but a form of restoration, reuniting what was severed at birth. We live our lives discomforted by a spark of eternity that bestirs us to recall that what we see is not all that exists. The most convincing proof of God, to my mind, is the eternal human hunger for God’s presence.

Our parasha opens with the laws and procedures surrounding the impurity caused by child-birth. The loss of blood evokes a sense of death and renders the mother unfit to enter the Tabernacle or Temple. But not so with regard to the Torah; its sanctity is beyond contamination. It may be desecrated by malice but not defiled by what is unclean. No one in a state of physical impurity is excluded for even a moment from touching a Torah or engaging in its study.

If Judaism expects each of us to enrich this world with one more sefer Torah (or one more commentary to it), what is expected of us in terms of children? How many ought we to raise to satisfy the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it (Genesis 1:28).” On this critical issue Jewish law is marked by sober restraint. While the commandment to marry and procreate is overriding, a couple need not have more than one child of each sex, a distribution that replicates God’s original creation of humankind. An alternate view would set the norm at two sons in accord with the example of Moses and Zipporah, but is rejected. It is noteworthy that Jewish law opted for the more common pattern and thus settled for a minimum number of children that was astonishingly low. Given the Torah’s inordinate concern for the proliferation of Abraham’s seed, clearly a higher minimum would have been in order.

I suspect the modesty of the norm reflects a respect for the high infant mortality rate before the advent of modern medicine. It may also conceal a muted preference for quality over quantity. Above all, for today it implies a birth rate that is compatible with the welfare of the planet.

As parents and teachers, our task is to intermingle these two supreme Jewish values of Torah and children. That is the authentic meaning of the ceremony of becoming a bar- or bat-mitzvah. By reading the parasha(and not merely the haftarah) from a sefer Torah, our children give public evidence of their intention to love the Torah as much as we have loved them, with a love laced with Torah.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tazri·a are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.