Sermon for Cantor Showcase of Unique Torah — Our Unique and Godly Torah

June 3, 2014
By bethmordecai
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Sermon for Cantor Showcase of Unique Torah — Our Unique and Godly Torah

*Sermon for Friday night of “Cantor Showcase of Unique Torah” (Shabbat prior to Shavuot) – May 30, 2014

 Our Unique and Godly Torah

Rabbi Ari Saks

Some of you may remember a story my father told during my installation on this same bimah over a year and a half ago. I was a little boy in Benton Harbor and my father and I had just come back from shul on Simhat Torah. As we approached home I started making a frantic pointing motion in a not-so-specific direction (with the requisite grunting of a child). So my father, in attempting to respond my neediness, took me on a walk trying to follow my random pointing. Eventually we ended up back at shul where my pointing got even more excited. So we went inside, walked up to the bimah, took out the Torah, and after my incessant nagging, my father danced with the Torah and myself for a few more hours. After that moment it was clear to my father that I loved Torah and he might have a future rabbi on his hands.

Such is the legend in my family, yet I have no recollection of that moment which means it could very well be factually inaccurate. Still, it’s there. Yet, if I were to truly choose a moment for the beginning of my love affair with Torah, it would be a few years later when I was a nine year old boy in second grade, but this time I actually remember the story.

The story also took place in shul, though this time the shul was outside of Philadelphia in Bensalem, PA. Every Shabbat I would go to junior congregation and towards the end of the service, our local do-it-all-lay-rabbi-cantor-torah reader Izzy would come into our little shul-for-tots to take a few of us to “Torah Club” so that we could learn how to read Torah from the bimah. These many years later I still remember the drills – reciting the trope over and over again until we had it memorized, working with flashcards to sing the trope on sight – leading to eventually (nearly six months later, to be more precise) having the opportunity to get up on the bimah during an adult service and read the third aliyah of the weekday cycle for Parashat Sh’mini in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). Each time since I’ve had a chance to read those three verses, a smile creeps across my face as I remember just how much I loved reading them the first time. Man, it was awesome to be able to read Torah! I wanted to do it again and again. So I did, reading parts here and there at shul, at school, and at camp until my bar mitzvah when I finally had the freedom to read in different synagogues in my area. Eventually it got to the point where I was reading the entire Torah portion twice each week for a shul in New York towards the end of my undergraduate studies. While of course there were those moments when it was taxing to read so much Torah, most of the time it just felt…well, awesome.

But what was so awesome about it? What is it about the act of reading from a physical scroll – that has been crafted with parchment and ink in the same manner for generations – that makes it so awesome? What is it about figuring out how to put together Hebrew letters and words – without any vowels or annotations – that makes it seem so holy? What is it about Torah that makes it so unique?

This upcoming week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the culmination of the 49 day Omer – a period of introspection and spiritual refinement – which prepares us to crown the freedom we achieved at Passover with the acceptance of Torah from God. In other words, Shavuot is the moment that according to tradition God reveals God’s Torah to us and we accept Torah into our lives. Perhaps then it is the divine character of Torah that makes reading from it so unique. As Norman Lamm, a former President of Yeshiva University, the body that ordains Modern Orthodox rabbis, once said: Torah is not only “min-hashamayim” (from heaven) but also “she-hi shamayim (it is heaven). There are many rabbinic statements that also testify to how Torah is part of heaven. One of my favorites is a beautiful midrash on the first word of the Torah – “b’reishit.” The midrash says “don’t read B’reishit Bara Elokim, which means “at the beginning God created;” rather read b’REISHIT Bara Elokim,” which means “ that which existed before Creation did God use to create.” And what existed before creation? Wisdom, in the form of Torah. In other words, when we read from the Torah we are experiencing a moment in which heaven is brought to earth.

But how is this possible? How can heaven or God or anything in the divine realm be brought down to earth? The fact that Torah is written in human language, in discreet words and letters that we human beings can read and understand, testifies that at some point Torah is no longer just divine, it is also human. And to some theologians, like Dr. Rabbi Neil Gillman (a professor of theology at my alma mater, The Jewish Theological Seminary) the fact that the Torah is written in discrete words and letters means that it is a human document, a snapshot of the human condition in trying to understand God and the divine realm.

So is the Torah godly or human? Is it revealed by God at Sinai, as we will celebrate this week, or is it created by humankind? I believe the answer, as you may suspect, is both…and that’s what makes Torah so unique. That’s what makes Torah so special to read from the bimah, that it is both a human experience and a divine one.

To explain why I think it’s both, I want to turn your attention away from the Written Torah that isread from the bimah, to the Oral Torah, the compilation of conversations and debates that Rabbis and their fellow Jews have had throughout the centuries on issues as hol, (“mundane”) as how to get dressed in the morning, and as kodesh (“holy”) as how to appear before the throne of God. These are conversations that happened in specific contexts, whether it was in Babylonia, Israel, or elsewhere, in which Jews were dealing with and talking about life, much like we do today. What’s more, the fact that the Oral Torah retains many unanswered questions, and debates of lively unresolved conversations, indicates just how human of a document it is. It is filled with gaps of understanding that are uniquely human. Yet, despite it’s human character, Rabeinu Yonah (13th Century, Spain) among other rabbis teaches us that when Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Ancestors”) begins by stating that “Moses received the Torah from Sinai,” it is teaching us that Moses received from God “bein Torah shebikhtav, bein Torah sheba-al peh” – both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. In other words, the written Torah, the one that fills me with awe as I read from it, the one we kiss when parade it around the sanctuary, is not holier than the Oral Torah that is debated, discussed, and argued wherever two Jews meet. Torah then, by its very nature, is both human and godly. There is no separation between the two. And as such, perhaps we are supposed to learn by this nexus between the human and godly realms that human life – all of the details of how we live and experience our lives as human beings – has the possibility of becoming godly when we attach our life stories to the Ultimate Story, the story of God.


This is the nexus between the Torah of our lives – the Oral Torah of how we live life – and the Torah of our tradition – the written Torah that teaches the unbreakable tradition which began the moment God revealed God’s self to the Israelites in the desert. This is the nexus that comprises our Unique Torah. We discover our Unique Torah the moment we realize that all of Torah – written, oral, or otherwise – are connected, are both human and divine. It is the moment when look at an event or experience of our lives and see in those moments a sign of God and eternity. When we meet a stranger who helps us in a great moment of need and we see in that stranger the presence of an angel, that is a moment of experiencing our Unique Torah. When we meet fellow Jews in an unfamiliar synagogue for holiday services while we’re serving in the armed forces in Europe and we see in that meeting the brotherhood of Judaism, that is a moment of experiencing our Unique Torah. When we hear a familiar tune in services and we remember in that instant how a teacher, or a parent passed down that tune to us, that is a moment of experiencing our Unique Torah. All of us have many experiences that have the possibility of becoming exalted, and our responsibility as a community is to help make those experiences godly, to turn our Unique life stories, into our Unique Torah.

The story I shared with you earlier tonight about the moment I decided to become a rabbi – about how, for the briefest of moments, I felt a divine presence – that story could not have happened without the many prior moments in which Judaism came alive for me, moments like the ones I mentioned, whether mythic or real, that filled my life with a love of Torah. And there are many other experiences, many of which not inherently connected to Judaism – my love of sports, interest in politics, and history – that I have tried to make a part of my Unique Torah and that I try to share through my teaching and my activism in the community. A little later the Cantor will share with you a particular story on some of the music of his Unique Torah, and then make that story come to life in a creative way in our service. Many of you here have shared some stories of your Unique Torah, and I hope a little later we will be able to hear some more of them. But we must also find ways to make those stories come to life, in our activism, our engagement, our creativity, both in and out of the synagogue. And so on this Shabbat before the celebration of the gift of revelation, when God gave us the ability to connect our Torah with God’s Torah, let us work to make our collective Unique Torah come alive for all to share in its human and divine glory.


*Note: The sermon for “Sermon for Friday night of “Cantor Showcase — Unique Torah” (Shabbat prior to Shavuot) – May 30, 2014” was delivered extemporaneously off of notes. This copy is the written draft used to create those notes. As such, the actual delivery of the sermon did not match word for word with this written draft.

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