I was twelve when Cecil B. DeMille’s technicolor biblical spectacle left me wide-eyed in my neighborhood movie theatre: The Ten Commandments! Last night I was in synagogue with family in Durham, North Carolina marking the Giving of Torah to the Jewish people: a night of small, nourishing and human-scale revelations.
The evening began with a group of Muslim guests and their imam standing with us around a Torah as the rabbi lovingly spoke about the centrality and holiness of the scroll. He described how the parchment is prepared, and the great care with which the writing is done. For example, should the scribe make an error in the writing of God’s name, that whole section of parchment must be unstitched from its neighbors. The text must be completely rewritten – without error – and then restitched in place.
I had never heard this bit before – about the unstitching, the rewriting, the restitching. At the same time, I was struck by the fact that the stories themselves are full of human error, human imperfections.
The Torah scroll unfolds the ultimate error-ridden, and unfinished, story. It opens with our common origins, the Creation, then traces the early generations of humankind who, within a matter of a few pages are banished from paradise to the labors of childbirth and working the land. We soon fall into envy, murder, and drunkenness. After the Flood God starts over. More generations of ill-will, jealousies and betrayals of one another and God. The Jewish people are enslaved, taken out of Egypt, receive a collective revelation – Torah, wander in the wilderness under the protection of God’s Cloud, and with Moses’ leadership. The scroll ends as God directs Moses to ascend Mt. Nebo to die, in view of the land he will never enter. Nor do we in the Biblical telling. It’s back to the beginning for us too.
Nevertheless, we learn, it is God’s nature to give, and humankind’s to receive.
And on the night of Shavuot, we receive by grappling with texts late into the evening.
We consider the power of the very letters and white spaces of the Torah scroll. We discuss commentaries from a half dozen sources on the meaning and power of blessing. We puzzle in discomfort over a contemporary Israeli poem suggesting that Torah itself will move on, will actually leave us. We wrestle with passages from the deeply mystical text of the Zohar that warn us not to take the stories as anything but garments which clothe the ultimately unknowable Mystery of God, yet also instruct us how to live and care for one another and the world.
I neither saw thunder nor heard lightening, as the Jewish people are said to have done at Sinai. No life-changing insight into myself or my own surely numerous errors of perception, belief, behavior.
But some dew settled on me, some nourishment, much fellowship, laughter, argument, provocation. For which I give thanks.
The banner image, Egg World,was painted by my dear friend Kristine Rasmussen, who knew how to delight in life better than most of us.