On Sunday, more than a hundred people stood in the aisles of their gathering place, most of them weeping. It wasn't a funeral, at least in the usual sense of the word, but it was an event so profoundly moving that few were left untouched. We all stood, in our synagogue, on the final day of Passover, in the presence of a Torah that had been hidden in Auschwitz and has only now been recovered and restored. [First though, it's important that you know that the Torah is the central road map of Judaism - all traditions and laws, ideals and values, emerge from these five books: Genesis (B'reshit), Exodus (Sh'mot), Leviticus ( Vayyikra), Numbers (Bemidbar) and Deuteronomy (D'varim.)] It's an amazing story and best told by our rabbi, who is responsible for bringing this moment to us. The story, in his words, appears at the bottom of this post.
Even the most spiritual person - one who easily connects to G-d, needs help sometimes. Praying, feeling any connection at all, takes work and concentration. But this day -- this day -- we were in the presence of something so remarkable that the sense of holiness was everywhere. I know this sounds way over the top - but stay with me. Here's what happened:
On Sabbath (Saturday), Monday, Thursday and holidays, we always read from the Torah during services. On Regular Sabbaths and weekdays we make our way through the five books; on holidays we re-read selected excerpts that relate to that particular festival. On this day, closing Passover, we read the prescribed passages, and then, a dear, gentle member of our congregation who is himself a Holocaust survivor took this special Torah, which contained four panels that had been hidden in Auschwitz and began to walk slowly up one aisle and down the other so that everyone who wished to could reach it. As he walked, another congregant - with an exquisite and soulful voice, sang Ani Mamin, the prayer that, witnesses told his family, his own great-grandfather (as had so many other Shoah victims) sang as he marched to his death at the hands of the Nazis. Orthodox services include no musical instruments, just voices, so only this sole, mournful chant swept our friend along as he made his way through the synagogue.
There was no other sound in the room. Silently, each of us moved to the aisle to touch this sacred representation of so much pain and so much faith. Silently, we watched as it passed and made its way to the stand where it would rest as it was unrolled, and read. As its cover was being removed, our rabbi urged us all to "move closer" - leave our seats and, from each side of the mechitza (room divider), gather near. He was right. Imagine looking at, seeing before you, a Torah panel that had been smuggled into Auschwitz and hidden there as long as it was a death camp. It's such a feeling of reverence, sadness, mourning and privilege that you need to imagine it for yourself; it's not possible to describe. I will tell you ,though, that almost everyone was either teary-eyed or weeping openly. And so it went as the Torah was read, wrapped, silently marched through the congregation one more time and placed in the Ark until it could be returned to those who gave us the privilege of being in its presence.
This all sounds VERY melodramatic, I know. I myself had often argued that our identity as Jews can't be built upon the suffering of those murdered six million - that we must feel our faith as a positive force, not only as a continuation that honors their suffering. But not this day. This day we all shared a connection with those who died, many who must have been our ancestors, whose grandchildren would have been at our weddings and bar mitzvahs, who really did belong to us - and who read from the thousands of Torahs that, unlike this one, did not survive the pillage and flames. Every time the Torah is returned to the Ark, the congregation sings a song about it that ends:
It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
This day - we all heard these words in such a different way, understanding what these few pages must have meant to those who had hidden them for so long.
I can't tell, if you weren't there - if it's possible to understand the experience -- at least at the hands of my limited skills as a writer. But I wanted you to know about it -- that it's possible still to find such a moment of clarity and understanding. That even someone like me, so reluctant to place meaning in things -- even articles representing faith like prayer books or even Torahs, can be shaken to the bone in the presence of something that bears witness both to the pain of our ancestors and, so powerfully, to the power of the faith we share with them.
Here's our Rabbi's story of the history of this Torah (I've included links to clarify a couple words):
Shmuel Herzfeld, Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, Washington DC