Receiving Torah, Up Close and Personally

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This article first appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.

By Zachary Bernstein

“My parents have never let me touch a Torah,” Michael said.

Michael (name changed) said this to me at the 2017 Keshet East Coast LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbaton. Keshet’s East Coast Shabbatonim are attended by nearly 100 high school aged participants, plus college-aged fellows, and staff members. These weekends are full of programs exploring Jewish identity, the challenges of being LGBTQ in our society, and the intersection of our LGBTQ identity and our Jewish identity. I have been in a leadership position for the past two Shabbatonim, helping plan the ritual for the Shabbaton and planning and facilitating Shabbat services.

During the Shabbat morning service at the 2017 Shabbaton, when it came to the fourth aliyah, I indicated to Michael, who had agreed to read Torah, to come up to the reader’s table. I asked him if he was going to read Torah, and he gave me a confused look. That’s when he muttered, “My parents have never let me touch a Torah,” and scurried back to his seat. A staff member, Ari (name changed), sight-read his Torah portion.

Michael came back for the afternoon service. After the service, Ari asked him to hang back for a moment. I joined them. Ari went to the ark and opened it, took out the Torah, and put it in Michael’s arms. Michael held it for a moment, and then Ari took the Torah, put it on the table, and opened it up. Michael’s first words upon seeing the inside of the Torah were, “It’s so much more beautiful up close.” I had no idea what he meant. Had he been looking up images of the Torah on Google Images? Had he seen it from a distance at shul? Why hadn’t he been allowed to touch a Torah scroll? I don’t know. But the moment he said that, I started to cry. I think all three of us were crying a little. It was really powerful to see Michael so moved by holding the Torah and seeing the words inside it.

I showed Michael some recognizable words and how some letters are extended and others shrunk so that the edges of the columns are perfectly vertical. I showed him the stitches that bind together the different pieces of parchment. Since the Torah reading that week was pretty close to the Ten Commandments and the Song of the Sea, we rolled the Torah to show him those exciting and distinctive parts of the Torah and how for lyrical or poetic readings, the columns look different.

As we were putting the Torah away, Michael thanked us, and he was clearly very emotional at that moment. Ari told him that he hoped that the Torah would always be accessible to him and always be as beautiful to him as it was at that moment.

That hope came true. I next saw Michael 12 months later, at the next East Coast Keshet Shabbaton, in March 2018. Michael was then in a leadership position, too – he was on the teen steering committee, and was planning the Shabbat morning services. In addition to organizing and planning the Shabbat services, he led the morning service. There were a few moments when he needed my help, but Michael led the service and did a beautiful job. In just twelve months, Michael went from a confused onlooker to a fantastic service-leader. He went from having never held a Torah scroll to leading the Torah service. Michael became a leader in that community.

Michael later told me how holding a Torah for the first time and seeing it up close had changed his life. Over those twelve months he had learned more about Judaism, had become more connected to our tradition, and involved himself in planning services at the Keshet Shabbaton to further his Jewish development. Above all, he was able to further his connection to Torah. Over that year the Torah became accessible to him.

Michael’s story is so incredibly moving to me because of what it meant to Michael, but also because it reminded me of how beautiful the Torah is, which is sometimes easy to overlook in the routine of seeing it as often as I do. Literally, the Torah is beautiful. The letters are beautiful. The design of the writing when there’s a song or a poem is beautiful. But the Torah is beautiful metaphorically, too. The Torah is beautiful because it has beautiful teachings and stories for us to study and learn from. The Torah is beautiful because it is accessible and tangible to all of us. Moses teaches us that the Torah and the tradition are available to all of us. Lo bashamayim hi (Deuteronomy 30:12) – it is not far-off in heaven; the Torah is right here, and it is something all of us can touch.

Zachary Bernstein is a sophomore at The George Washington University and an intern at the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.