Passing the Torah in the Search for Meaning
This year, as summer folded into fall, we celebrated our son Josh becoming a bar mitzvah. Before he chanted from the handwritten letters inside the Torah scroll, our rabbi called to the bimah (pulpit) the generations that have preceded him. Like a small acapella singing group, my husband and I, my parents, and my mother-in-law gathered to pass the Torah to Josh – physically and metaphorically.
Dubbed “the Torah pass” by the founding rabbi who started the tradition in our congregation, our rabbi has continued this emotional ritual. Holding the scroll aloft then cradling it, he walks the Torah to elderly grandparents. Some hold it in their arms, others touch its velvet cover gently. Next, he hands the Torah to the parents, who pass it to their child who holds it close, making sure not to drop it.
My father-in-law died nearly a year ago, and we all huddled a bit closer together to fill the gap where he would have stood on the bimah that day. I recalled how his artist hands had clasped the scroll a few years earlier at our daughter’s bat mitzvah. A member of one of Germany’s first Reform temples, he had studied Bible with an eye and ear toward science and rationality. That day, he had held the Torah proudly, with dignity.
Beginning with my mother-in-law, the rabbi leaned the dowels of the Torah scroll against her narrow shoulder as the tiny silver bells on the crowns clinked softly. In 1939, at the age of eight, she – together with her mother, grandparents, and cousins – had boarded a German steam liner, the S.S. St. Louis. Despite stops in Cuba, where loved ones tossed pineapples to the passengers aboard ship, the United States, and Canada, my mother-in-law and the nearly thousand other passengers on the ocean liner were turned away and returned to a Europe swarming with Nazis. How fitting that she passed the Torah, a symbol of our people’s survival and resilience.
My parents held the Torah next. They are proud, first-generation Americans whose Jewish response lies in the ethical injunctions of the prophets. Feasts and fast days have no meaning to them unless our society protects orphans and the weak. My mother’s ancestors, rabbis, and teachers in Yiddish-speaking towns with names like Kletzk, reside within her perfectly articulated Hebrew. The inspiring glacier-cap of Mount Rainier, not the menacing Carpathian Mountains of his ancestors’ homeland, shaped my father’s Judaism.
Like Russian nesting dolls un-nested, our generations stood before the congregation, our ancestors invisible within us, their sparks of holiness buried in our genes and in our memories. Although six of us stood on the bimah that day – the generations hopping and skipping in our cells, in the color of our eyes, in our voices, and in ways we never will recognize – Chana and Malka, Mina, Goldie, and Sarah stood there as well.
In less than a minute, the Torah pass was complete, but not before I glimpsed my own bat mitzvah, my burgundy dress a perfect match to the sanctuary’s velvet seats. From the corner of my eye, I caught my grandmothers in their elegant suits, the scent of Chanel No5 unmistakable in the air around them.
The ancient rabbis used to explain that chronology is a fiction in the Torah. Time is fluid. Abraham could speak with Moses. King David could stroll with Adam. Passing the Torah, we believed we understood the meaning of “early” and “late,” “before” and “after.”
But those scholars knew better.
Even as Josh chanted the ancient notes of our creation story, reading the words from right to left, we, of every generation, find ourselves flipping back and looking ahead in the Torah, ever in search of meaning for our own day.