A coffee mug nestled in the palm of her hands. My friend Rashi’s eyes combed the room before commenting. “So many things… seems like there’s a thing in every place, and a place for every thing.”
Rashi is no longer with us, yet I treasure the memory of our friendship, her generosity of purse and spirit, her appreciation of art, ethnicity and Judaica. As the holidays approach, I visualize Rashi’s awesome admiration of holy “things.” I can hear her voice echoing across the divide between us.
Yet the primary sounds resonating at this time of year are that of the shofar, the sound of the Baal Tefilla and the Baal Koreh, particularly on Sukkot when we read Kohelet.
“Hevel Havalim, hakol hevel…Futility of futilities … everything is unimportant, empty.” The world is transitory; all things in our lives are short-lived, and worthless. Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of men, understood the heart of man and his desires when he stated this belief.
I sometimes wonder: Which “things” in our home are not futile, which “things” would I never choose to part from? The silver candlesticks that I’ve lit every Friday night for nearly six decades? Or Esther and Ruth, the megillot standing aristocratically on a shelf, read one day a year? Would I want to part from our megillat Shir Hashirim, a magnificent hand-illustrated scroll, a gift from our family? Or our chanukiyah – the gift we received from my grandparents before our aliyah in 1960, the chanukiyah we’ve been lighting annually in Jerusalem for well over half a century?
The first and most precious, never-to-part-from holy item would be our Sefer Torah that was purchased with the small sum my father-in-law bequeathed after he passed away during the summer of 1990. My husband could not imagine spending that sum on something mundane and, since he honored his father as his personal Sefer Torah, he surveyed the market for old Torah scrolls. He sought something small in size, a sefer for our home where a Friday night minyan was often held. If he had a Sefer Torah, he would organize a Shabbat mincha minyan as well.
Jewish ritual objects, old books, and holy Sifrei Torah could be found in the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 and the Iron Curtain was demolished, the doors to Eastern Europe, closed for decades, reopened to foreign visitors. Israelis dealing in Judaica made their way to Russia, Poland, Romania and Hungary in search of Jewish art and holy objects deteriorating in dark cellars and buildings that were once inhabited by Jews, and holy objects that were hidden and left behind by the Nazis. They transported their finds home to Israel to be restored, displayed or sold.
My husband made the rounds of various scribes dealing in old scrolls, manuscripts and holy items, until one day a sofer in a small corner of Jerusalem phoned.
“I may have what you are looking for,” he murmured in Yiddish. “It is old, and in pitiable condition, but it can be restored.”
The scroll was carefully checked at the institute dealing with documenting old scrolls and computerizing information. Once the institute approved the purchase, they advised that the scroll could and should be restored. From there our Sefer Torah project commenced.
A sanctuary, a wooden ark built to specific measurements, was necessary, so a carpenter was the first to be contracted. The carpenter’s eyes glistened when he accepted the offer. An observant returnee to Judaism, he completed his work and told us that he perceived building the ark as a holy task, consequently so meaningful to him as to require special tefilla and tevilla, prayer and immersion in a mikva daily before beginning the essential labor.
Torah Scrolls are compared to living trees, and sturdy wooden handles to roll the parchment and to lift the scroll were ordered from the atzei chaim craftsmen.
We chose fabric for a coat to cover the scroll, and for the curtain concealing the scroll inside the ark. An artisan was employed to do the embroidery and dedication lettering. It took nine months for the project to be completed and the Sefer Torah installed in our home. A silver pointer and a breastplate were gifts from our children in honor of the special event.
As parsha readings reach the end of Devorim, Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader and teacher, poetically expresses his command in Parshat Haazinu:
“Ve-atah kitvu lachem et hashirah hazot – And now write for yourselves this song.”
What is this song Moshe commanded us to write? Our sages explain that each individual is commanded to write a Sefer Torah.
Thoughts and questions prompted by that commandment can be daunting. I often wonder who wrote the Sefer in our possession. When was it written, and why was it left to deteriorate and then reemerge decades later for rededication? Why was it designated to become the treasure in our home? Is there a connection?
Neither the institute nor the Sofer were able to supply source or lineage information; they could only assume that the beautifully-lettered scroll was probably written at the private bidding of a Jew sometime in the early 1900’s before Hitler rose to power, and before the communists barred all access to Jewish tradition.
Sometimes I dream about the possible origins of our scroll. I imagine a family somewhere in Russia or Lithuania, where my father-in-law was born and raised, a family forced out of their home, perhaps like my father-in-law’s family in the town of Ritove. My father-in-law, Rabbi Hirsch Heiman z”l, was a naturalized American citizen serving as a communal rabbi in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the early 1940’s when his father and the men of the town Ritove were lined up and shot in the forest; his mother and the rest of the women in the town were buried alive a few weeks later. His brother and family were exterminated in the Nazi camps, leaving him the sole survivor of his family that was destroyed by the Holocaust. Perhaps someone in the town had a Sefer Torah that they hid in the cellar of their home. Fifty years on it was discovered and taken in hand to restore, to dress and wrap in a warm embroidered coat, to be held again and cherished, in Israel, the Jewish state that Ritove townsfolk never lived to see except in their dreams.
In celebration of the recovered scroll, it was read at a weekly Shabbat mincha minyan in our home in Jerusalem. The Sefer was honored and read by clients of our travel company who were traveling aboard a cruise liner on the Mediterranean, sailing around ports that included Barcelona, Marseilles and Venice. It served a kosher tour to Spain, Portugal and Morocco that our travel office had organized. Another year it cruised to Alaska and continued to the Canadian Rockies, and one summer it flew to be read in Switzerland. The scroll departed by air from Israel zipped inside a red bag sewn especially for travel, with straps pulled tightly over my husband’s shoulders, held securely across his chest, touching his heart.
“Dor holech v’dor ba,” states Kohelet. “A generation goes and a generation comes,” yet the earth endures forever. The lessons we learn from our fathers we try to transmit to the most cherished of our possessions, our children. Through study and performance of mitzvoth, we educate by example, teaching them to follow elders of earlier generations. That our lives are temporary should not lead to despair; on the contrary, when we find significant joy lighting our Shabbat candles, lighting our chanukiyot, reading from our megillot and Sifrei Torah, we convey their importance to those whom we love most.
On Simchat Torah, our Sefer Torah is taken out to join other minyanim. Some years that takes place in Yeshivat Chevron where my father-in-law was one of the original group of young men who studied there in 1924 in the City of the Patriarchs. Other years our Sefer has joined a local neighborhood minyan in Yerushalayim.
As my friend Rashi had observed years ago, “A thing in every place and a place for every thing” has the ability to create a stronger connection to G-d, generating space for sanctity to survive, for my father’s silver cup to be raised in a spirited toast, a hearty l’chaim with blessing for a Shanah Tova and Chag Sameach to all.