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Sep 10 2013

Getting Up Close & Personal with the Torah

By at 3:25 pm

torah sofer scribeAs a writer, I love words, but I’m pretty indifferent to the letters in the alphabet. When I’m typing, I don’t even glance at the keyboard. And of course, my children and my writing rarely mix, except when I send an otherwise polished email that abruptly ends in a flourish of ghnjopiarp!, the result of rogue little hands.

So the feat of “writing with children” took on meaning last month, when my preschoolers and I visited a sofer, or Torah scribe, at our synagogue in Rochester. The Torah, dating from the 1800s and entrusted to our congregation, had been destroyed in the Holocaust and was now being restored, one letter at a time–by the sofer and our congregants, tracing in tandem over 300,000 letters. And the week before Rosh Hashanah was my family’s turn to scribe a letter.

“Is it an Aleph?” ventured my son.

“It’s a Resh,” said the sofer. “As in Rosh. The head, the start. You use your head to write and read Torah, and next week is the start of the year.”

I didn’t think to ask which book of Torah, which passage, which sentence or even which word we were helping to complete as the sofer motioned my children to sit beside him. I was too nervous. Given my kids’ yen for wild scribbling, I was petrified at their taking control of the turkey feather. One false move, one smudge, would render this venerable Torah completely useless. The Torah code must be exact and have no errors.

The sofer motioned for my children to place their hands on top of his. I held my breath.

“This would be a fortuitous time,” said the sofer, raising the quill to reveal a perfect Resh, “to pray for the health of your family.” My breath returned.

We said the shechechiyanu and had cookies, wine, and juice, after which we received a certificate that we’d fulfilled the 613th, final commandment of the Torah: “Write for yourselves this song” (Deuteronomy 31:19). The certificate also quotes Mishneh Torah: “If you write just one letter in a Torah scroll, it is as if you wrote the entire Torah.”

My proximity to Torah parchment triggered memories of my bat mitzvah, which gave a whole new meaning to the description of Torah as “a tree of Life for those who cling to it.” In the most immediate, naked-before-the-crowd sense, I clung desperately to each letter I chanted to sputter something close to the correct articulation. The parashah (torah portion) I read for my bat mitzvah, a graphic passage on leprosy and festering boils, was so icky in translation that our congregation later phased it out. In that case, the laser-focus on letters was a blessing, as I have such a weak stomach I could never have read the words without gagging, had I understood them. In English, it’s the opposite: fixating on letters, clouding the meaning that words and sentences map in our brains, makes me sick. Years ago I had a so-called “writing” job that required me to format my paragraphs so each sentence stopped at the same width on the page to create a perfect margin, even if that meant forcing hyphens to break up a word. That squinting gave me, no pun intended, a splitting headache.

On our scribing day, that engagement with the raw material of Torah–parchment, feather, and ink–tracing letters, completing a mitzvah with no room for error and no “Delete” or “Undo” buttons, was a rare and intense pleasure in an age where my Facebook friends label events like “Attempting my first stir-fry” with the hashtag #shechechayanu, and a “Schluchot Prayer” e-mail blast cloaks its chain-letter DNA in a “mystical Jewish formula for good mazel.”

How else but hovering inches from the parchment could we appreciate how the ayin in Sh’ma yisraeil and the dalet in echad stand out on the scroll to form the word ad “eternity,” or eid, “witness”? Those little flourishes in the letters enhance the meaning of the words.

As I envision God poised this week to inscribe our fates in the Book of Life, contemplating each letter with the full weight of memory, mercy, and judgment, I have renewed appreciation for the solitary letter, the building blocks of the language that defines our faith and fate. And I hope that no abrupt shofar blast interrupts His steady hand while writing out my coming year.

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