During our temple’s sanctuary renovation several years ago, I was given the privilege of storing one of Beth Shalom’s five Torahs in our house.
On a rainy Thursday, right after Simchat Torah, I walked into the temple and carried out the Torah from its familiar place in the ark in what was soon to be the “old sanctuary,” shut the sanctuary doors behind me, and walked out to the parking lot. Covered in a navy blue velour mantle, the Torah was much heavier than I’d remembered. I hadn’t held one in my arms since my bar mitzvah so many years ago. Could this be the same Torah I’d held on that day?
As I gingerly wrapped it in a sheet in the back seat of our minivan and secured it with a seatbelt, I flashed back to the day we drove our firstborn, Ben, home from Beth Israel hospital. What if we hit a bump, or worse, if we’re in an accident? I practically held my breath until I reached home.
With the reception I received from my children—Benjamin (then 9), Rachel (6), and Jacob (3)—you’d think I’d brought them a new puppy. One of the synagogue’s Torahs in our house! “Cool,” Ben exclaimed. “Can I touch it?” Jacob asked. “Just today,” I said, allowing each of them a moment to hold the Torah while I snapped photographs—a once-in-a-lifetime photo op.
Both my wife Elissa and I were also in awe: the Torah, and what it represents—years of tradition written on parchment and anchored at each end by the strength of an etz chayim (wooden scroll handle)—in our house!
The Torah’s temporary ark would be a glass cabinet—formerly a dumping ground for video tapes, CDs, extra batteries, and miscellaneous vacation “treasures,” and soon to be the focal point of our heavily trafficked family room. Could there be a better place for the Torah? It would be ever present in our daily lives and protected from dirty hands, flying soccer balls, and Oliver, our very curious poodle. As I carried the Torah to its new home, we all said the shehechiyanu—thanking God for bringing us to this day.
Over the next several months the Torah became another family member, holding a valued and commanding presence in the household. Every time we passed it by, we checked to make sure it was upright and secure. In some ways I felt it watched over us.
The Torah was the first object visitors noticed. Whenever Jacob’s friends came over, he’d lead them to our treasured guest. “It’s our Torah,” he’d say. “Don’t touch it. It’s very old. It costs a lot of money.” Our adult friends were similarly impressed, though some questioned whether we were crazy to keep such a valuable object in full view.
Having the Torah in our midst sparked our family’s interest in its teachings. Soon the novels on my nightstand were replaced by scholarly Torah commentaries. How had I missed the fact that my children’s namesakes—Benjamin, Rachel, and Jacob—are key characters in a rich tapestry of stories and lessons contained in the Torah, and that all three names are linked together! Benjamin was the twelfth and youngest son of Jacob. His mother was Rachel, Jacob’s wife. The biblical Jacob is a trickster—how fitting for my Jacob, the class clown and a prankster if there ever was one. Jacob wrestles the angel and becomes known as Israel, the father of the nation that bears his name. And all these stories are immortalized in the Torah that sojourned in our house.
It was a sad day for us when we received the call that the sanctuary renovation had been completed and “our” Torah had to be returned. I took the same long drive back to the synagogue, careful not to go too fast or hit any bumps, holding my breath until I reached the safe sanctity of Beth Shalom. There, Rabbi Jay Perlman dressed the Torah in its new majestic mantle—a magnificent patchwork mosaic of hand-dyed silk—and placed it alongside the four other scrolls that filled our beautiful new ark behind doors etched in opaque glass—obscuring a direct view of the Torahs, but in its translucence revealing the bright colors of the mantles. Our synagogue’s Torah family was complete again.
But at the Grebber home, our “ark” had become cluttered with “chotchkes” once again. We felt bereft every time we looked at it. We had become a family of Torah “empty nesters.”
And so it was that synagogue services became ever more important to us. Every Shabbat our family waited with great anticipation for the opening of the ark doors. And each time, Jacob asked me the same question: “Dad, which Torah is MY Torah?”
Our having lived with a Torah, I realized, was much more meaningful than any of us could have anticipated: it sparked a deep feeling of personal identification with our ancestors and the wisdom they had passed along from generation to generation. How, I wondered, could we recapture this legacy within the walls of our home?
Then I had an idea. In the fall of 2006 I started looking for Torah sellers on the Internet. One afternoon, at lunchtime, I came across an ad for a Judaic auction happening that very day in my neighborhood. Surprising myself, I walked over to the auction house and began previewing the scrolls. What am I doing here? What do I know about buying a Torah? I asked myself as I overheard experienced collectors around me soliciting details about the Torahs on view, nodding wisely, and taking notes. Still, before I headed back to work I took a chance and completed an absentee bid form for the scroll which most intrigued me. Imagine my shock the next day when an email informed me that my bid had been accepted!
The following Sunday, Jacob helped me carry a very large box of “temple administrative paperwork” into the synagogue. Then, while Jacob, Ben, and Rachel headed to religious school, I entered Rabbi Todd Markley’s office. Together we examined each section of the parchment, looking for missing sections and imperfections such as water stains, and pored over the accompanying documents. My scroll, I learned, was in wonderful condition considering its age—approximately eighty years old. Written by a Polish sofer (scribe) in the beit yosef style (traditional Ashkenazic lettering), it had been carried by Holocaust survivors to Israel. The rest of its history remains a mystery.
Now the Torah storage roles were reversed: my congregation was temporarily harboring my Torah! That is, until last Chanukah. On the first night, after our family had lit the candles and exchanged gifts, I sat the kids down on the sofa and read a story I’d found at the Jewish bookstore about a Torah that was taken from a synagogue by the Nazis, tattooed, and stored in a warehouse along with dozens of other stolen Torah scrolls. After the war the Torah was rescued by an organization in London and later loaned to a Jewish school. After finishing the story I commented on the wonder of a Torah being used for many more years. This story is my real Chanukah gift to you, I told Benjamin, Jacob, and Rachel. You can imagine the blank stares I received from the kids! Hoping they’d catch on, I said once again, “This is my gift.” They still didn’t get it, but my wife began to smile.
“You didn’t,” she said. “I can’t believe it!”
At that point I excused myself, retrieved the box, and handed it to the children. “What is it?” Ben asked. “I know,” Jacob said, “it’s that box of paper I helped Dad carry to temple a few weeks ago.” “You’re giving us PAPER?” Rachel asked.
“Open it,” I instructed. And as they did, three gasps broke the silence.
“It’s OUR Torah!” Jacob screamed. “Is it a REAL Torah?” Rachel inquired. “You actually bought us a Torah?” Ben asked in his usual cynical manner.
“It’s our family Torah,” I declared, holding back tears. “It’s ours to keep.”
Simchat Torah will be more meaningful than ever this year as we carry our family Torah to temple to celebrate its rededication. And then in October, Ben will become a bar mitzvah and read from Parshat Noach in this Torah, as I imagine countless numbers of b’nai mitzvah have also done during its eighty-year existence. In 2010, when she becomes a bat mitzvah, Rachel will read from our Torah, and then in 2013 it will be Jacob’s turn. Holidays, births, lifecycle events, and the everyday life of our family will be sanctified by its presence. And together, we will respect, revere, and protect this Torah as we go forth dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
David Grebber is first vice president of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts.