There we were. We were a roomful of sixth graders and their parents. We had spent the morning in a workshop, learning about what it means to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in this day and age. We looked at texts. We asked great questions. We shared expectations and emotions. The workshop marked the unofficial start of the road to the momentous day when they would stand up before their congregation to lead us in prayer, chant from our precious Torah, and share with us, in their own words, what they plan to bring to the world as adult Jews.
Before we left, I had us take part in an important ritual. It's a ritual we have enacted in recent years, but seems to take on greater meaning all the time. I gathered everyone around a long table. There were more than fifty of us crammed together. I saw all the sets of eyes go wide as I unrolled the Torah before us.
So few of us have seen a Torah scroll up close. So few of us have spent time really looking at those timeless, delicate words. Our sages refer to Torah as an eitz chaim, a Tree of Life, for it gives us life, nourishes us, and provides us with protection from the world's ever-changing winds. To see the Torah through the eyes of our students is one of the greatest blessings I have known. I am always sure to tell them that our particular Torah scroll is over three hundred years old and thus has survived multiple world wars, great upheaval, times of sorrow and true joy. As we look down at it with wonder, it is always looking up at us with hope, urging us to be the ones to carry it forward to tomorrow.
We end the workshop with this ritual to remind our B’nei Mitzvah families what the Bar and Bat Mitzvah are really about in the end: not florists, not photographers, not candle lighting ceremonies or speeches or even guest lists, but drawing closer to the Torah. To be a Jew is to live Torah every single day.
What does this mean for us? Here are some ways we can bring Torah into our own lives amid the chaos and stress that often defines our lives: Take a class with your clergy. Come to services on Shab-bat and holidays. Come join us at our congregational Passover seder. Join one of our synagogue committees to bring new ideas and energy to such places as social action, lifelong learning or ritual at Adath Emanu-El. Visit Israel with your family or with your synagogue family. Any and all of this will feed your soul, I promise, and bring you back to Torah.
I will note in closing that when we opened the scroll that morning, it happened to be right at the Torah portion of Tetzaveh, from the Book of Exodus, the second book of our Torah. In this portion, we find a lengthy description of what the High Priests wore in the time of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (the first of which was destroyed in 538 BCE, the second of which was destroyed in 70 CE). We read there of their elaborate garments, which helped to distinguish them as true ambassadors of the people to God. They saw themselves as guardians of Judaism and its future. Their task meant so much to them. We, too, have an opportunity every day to distinguish ourselves as Jews who guard and care for our people and our faith. You can do that. Yes, you. Consider this your personal invitation.
As you sit around your Passover table this month, take a minute to think about that sacred Tree of Life, the Torah, and how it might inspire you anew to give, to learn, to teach, and to engage with our beautiful faith.