Torah Notes, November 2011
The Torah: Passport to Our Future
The “Day of Remembering”–Yom HaZikaron–one of the names of Rosh HaShanah, feels particularly apt this year as we approach our 50th anniversary as a congregation this November. This is a momentous occasion for us to travel back in time, recalling and celebrating our achievements. We have certainly come a long way from those days when the Torah was schlepped around in the back of a blue station wagon from house to house to today where we gather on this magnificent Jewish campus. We have welcomed hundreds of young people as b’nei mizvah and confirmands over the decades and have built up a wonderful and still growing education and youth program. It has been thrilling to watch at family simchahs, on a number of occasions now, as grandparents pass the Torah to their children and then on to their grandchildren, when all three generations are a part of our congregation! We have celebrated five classes of adults coming to the Torah as b’nei mitzvah! We have an engaging and dynamic Gan Haverim preschool and active programming for young families, young couples, seniors and everything in between. Some of us have traveled to Israel together with our families in the congregation and another opportunity for a congregational trip to Israel is already in the works for next summer. We have also actively built bridges with the larger Davis community, collaborating with a wide range of groups on Social Justice projects, like Community Meals, and Interfaith projects, like the Celebration of Abraham. Even more important than looking back, this milestone anniversary is an opportunity to travel together into the future as we dream about what we can yet become in the next 10, 20, or even 50 years, as we work with one another, yad b’yad, hand-in-hand, to make that vision come to life.
The passing decades have seen many changes, transitions and growth in our congregation. We have had 4 full time rabbis, a few part-time rabbis and a cantor over the years providing spiritual leadership. We have learned new melodies, incorporated new traditions, and evolved in our Jewish practices together. Our staff has multiplied, as well, to support the growing programs that fill our buildings to overflowing with Jewish activities on a regular basis. The faces in our congregation have changed, too, and now reflect the rich diversity of the Jewish community and our world. And we have grown in size, as well, from a handful of families to, now, nearly 300; while we have also lost dear and beloved partners over the years, whose memories continue to bless us.
Hardly anything is permanent, it seems, in our long congregational history. But the one constant all along has been the Torah, which nourishes, guides and sustains us as a congregation. The Torah stands at the heart of our congregation and distinguishes us from a Jewish community center or a Jewish social club. Even when it is not readily apparent, the Torah energizes us and gives us life, creating a sacred foundation for all that we do; whether it is the guiding force in our Religious School curriculum, the values that animate our Social Justice activities, or the rich shared history that links us together as a people to the State of Israel.
Just as the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant as they made their way through the wilderness long ago, the Torah has accompanied us and inspired us on our 50 year journey like a sacred passport, granting us access to lush oases of Jewish stories and teachings, transporting us to new vistas of spiritual understanding, and opening the gates of our hearts to meaningful Jewish memories and adventures.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach, celebrated teacher, story-teller, and singer of the Jewish people inquired:
“Have you ever seen people dancing on Simchas Torah? There are no borders between them, no walls. They are just all together, rich and poor, old and young, parents and children. Do you know why? On Simchas Torah we take out the Torah, but we dance before we read it. While we are dancing, it’s as if the Torah is blank. What is God giving us? A Munkatcher Passport…” To understand what Reb Shlomo means, I have to tell you a story; a Reb Shlomo story, The Munkatcher Passport:
A chasid once came to the great Rebbe, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and said, “Holy Master, I hate to bother you, but I have to travel to Lublin and I don’t have a passport. I know I could go to the police and get one, but you know what happens when the police know about a Jew; it means nothing but trouble! I don’t want the authorities to know I even exist…
Please, Rebbe, is there some way you could help me get the passport I need?”
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak said, “Wait here.” He went into his private room and came out a few minutes later holding a blank piece of paper. “Here’s your passport,” he said, giving the paper to the chasid. Then, seeing the expression on his student’s face, he added, “Don’t worry. With this passport you won’t need anything more.”
Can you imagine how much faith it takes to come to a border and hand the guard a blank piece of paper?! But the chasid had absolute trust in his Rebbe. He ran home, packed his things, and set off for Lublin. When he came to the Polish border, he took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and handed the soldier the Berdichever’s passport. The officer studied the blank paper for a moment, then started saluting the chasid: “What a privilege–to meet such an exalted person. It’s the greatest honor of my whole life! On behalf of the Polish government, I’d like to offer you whatever help I can on your journey. Perhaps a horse and carriage would make your travels more comfortable?”
Well, the chasid was a poor man; he’d never ridden in a carriage in his entire life! Wherever he went in Poland, he showed the Berdichever passport, and all the gates were instantly opened. He was treated like a king. His trip was a success and he returned home b’shalom, in peace.
Many, many years later, in 1935, a Munkatcher chasid, from Hungary, with long peyos and a thick beard, was also in trouble. He had to go to Germany right away. He had a passport, but with the Nazis, he knew an ordinary passport wouldn’t be enough to keep him safe. He didn’t know what to do, so he went to his Rebbe for help.
The holy Reb Chaim Eleazer Shapiro of Munkatch was one of the greatest Rebbes in Europe at the time. But even the saintly Munkatcher seemed surprised when he heard of his chasid’s problem. “Certainly I will pray for you to have a safe trip,” he told his desperate follower. “But I don’t know what else I can do for you.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust your prayers, Rebbe,” the chasid answered. “But I am so afraid…Do you remember the story you told us about the passport R. Levi Yitzchak gave to his student? That’s the kind of thing I need. Please, Rebbe–make me a passport like that!
“The Berdichever Rav was the holiest of holy,” the Munkatcher replied, shaking his head. “Maybe he was high enough to give a Berdichever Passport. But what makes you think I am on such an exalted level?”
“I know you can do it,” the chasid cried. “I’m sure of it! Rebbe, please–I am begging you. I wouldn’t have come to you if it weren’t so terribly important. I really HAVE to go to Germany, and I’m so afraid I won’t make it back. Rebbe, for the sake of my wife and children, please help me!”
“Alright,” the Munkatcher sighed. “I’ll try. Wait for me here.” And he went into his private room.
Now to go to Lublin from Berdichev, to Poland from Russia, was one thing. But for a Jew to go from Munkatch, Hungary to Germany in 1935–and back…
The Rebbe stayed in his room for three hours. When he finally came out, his eyes were red and swollen and his holy face was streaked with tears. He handed his chasid a blank piece of paper. But the paper was wet–soaked with all the tears of all our years of suffering. “It is only because this is such an emergency that I give this to you–but only if you promise me one thing. You must never tell anyone about it as long as I live.”
“I promise, Rebbe,” the chasid said eagerly. “I’ll never tell a soul!” So the Rebbe gave him the Munkatcher passport.
The chasid came to the German border. The Nazi on guard looked at his side locks and beard, and demanded with a sneer, “Where’s your passport?” The chasid gave him the blank piece of paper. The Nazi took one look at it and his whole expression changed. “Sir, I am so honored to meet you, “ he cried. “You are probably the greatest person ever to visit our country. Please give me the privilege of assisting you on your journey. Here is a letter to the chief of police of every town in Germany. They will take care of you and protect you.”
The chasid stayed in Germany for over a week. The Nazis gave him a car and driver; they even paid for him to stay in the best hotels everywhere he went. He returned safely home, and true to his promise to the Rebbe, he never told anyone about his Munkatcher passport.
The Munkatcher Rebbe left this world in 1937. Three years later the chasid suddenly became very sick and he knew that he would not live much longer. So he called his whole family to his bedside and said, “Before I leave this world, I have to tell you a very holy secret…” He told them the whole story of the Munkatcher Passport, and then he said, “This is my last will and testament. When you bury me, I want the Mukatcher Passport to be in my hand. Because if the Rebbe’s paper got me across the most dangerous border in the world, who knows what gates it will open for me in the World to Come.” (from Lamed Vav: A Collection of the Favorite Stories of R’ Shlomo Carlebach)
The Munkatcher Passport–a blank piece of paper that had great powers to open doors and hearts–is more than a story about the magical powers of great rebbes to conjure up documents that secure us safe passage in dangerous times. I see a deeper and more profound teaching embedded in this chasidic tale. This meiseh, this story, in fact, can be understood as an allegory in which the passport symbolizes the powers of the Torah–also, once a blank piece of parchment–to touch our hearts, minds and spirits through its ability to root us in our truest identity, usher us into new realms so as to access learning that fulfills our life’s purpose, and create emotional bonds that connect us to our Jewish history, heritage and community.
With the Torah, God is giving us a Munkatcher passport; an empty scroll we fill with our own meaning as we cross over into the past and discover treasures for today. The Torah may break down barriers that keep us alienated and help us discover connections that sustain us and enrich us. Maybe the Torah touches us by opening doors that are locked in our hearts. Maybe the Torah challenges us to discover a new way of reading a troubling story. And maybe, for some, the Torah appears only as a blank page…where we see nothing of import there. But the Torah, like the Munkatcher Passport, when we engage with it, becomes fully activated and can then reveal its secrets.
Torah is blank like a mirror is blank, reflecting back the one who gazes into it. So, when we look into the Torah together, we discover a many-faceted mirror that reflects the deepest truths about what it means to be human. We can find ourselves reflected in the nuanced stories of Torah–in the foibles and shortcomings of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the family squabbles among siblings, the jealousies, the competitions, the desire to be loved and accepted. No one is perfect, and so we can perceive ourselves in the struggles of our ancestors. Through the stories of the Torah, we learn what it means to be in relationship, what it is to be in community, what it means to yearn, to be just, to serve, how to fail, forgive and feel God’s presence. In this way, the Torah also inspires us to fulfill our holy potential.
The power of the Munkatcher Passport is that it allows others to see, not just how we show up in the world, but our true inner-nature, the radiant image of the Divine. Arguably the greatest teaching in the Torah is the notion that each of us is created b‘tzelem elohim, in the image of God. Rabbi Rami Shapiro teaches that actually “[t]he book of Genesis tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of G!d. Yet when G!d actually creates us, Torah refers to us as the image of G!d and not the likeness…Being in the image of G!d means that we are G!d manifest. Just as a wave is the ocean extended in time and space, so each one of us is G!d extended in time and space. What does it mean to be the likeness of G!d? Being the likeness of G!d means that we have the potential to act in a godly manner. It means that we can, regardless of our ideology, theology, and politics, engage each moment and each other with lovingkindness. According to Genesis, G!d intends for us to be godly, to honor the image by living out the likeness, This is not a metaphor. The Hebrew name for G!d – YHVH, when written vertically takes on the shape of a human being. Each one of us is the Name of G!d incarnate.” (From The Sacred Art Of Lovingkindness) The Torah becomes a passport for us, then, to the experience of our own wholeness and holiness.
In fact, the Torah, just like a passport, is meant to be used, to take us places. Sometimes to our favorite haunts. Sometimes to new places. The Torah is not our destination but the access point through which we travel to discover our own soul; connecting us in the deepest ways to our community, our history, our core values and, ultimately, to ourselves and the Holy One. The Torah empowers each of us to take charge of our Jewish journey. There are no borders, no barriers that can’t be crossed. We are challenged and changed by our encounters. With the passport of Torah in hand, we are free to travel to the places that excite us most and learn according to our passions. All expenses paid–even the carriage, no extra cost! We argue alongside Abraham and Moses with God for justice, we become seekers of peace with Aaron, and we wrestle together with the Israelites with what it means to be kadosh, or those who emulate God. Through the Torah, in the broadest sense, we access all of the sources of our tradition, which allows us to discover a sacred map of values and teachings that can serve as guideposts pointing us towards our highest selves, which, after all, is our sacred mission in life.
Like a well-worn passport, the Torah is filled with reminders of every crossing point, each stamp recalling the journey taken by the Jewish people. And this is our sacred journey, as well. When all is said and done, it is about telling the story and the meaning that we make out of our experiences. As we engage with the Torah, it is not sufficient to simply experience it, be moved by it or even transformed by it. We must share what we have learned with others and pass it on! The success of Torah is in telling the stories from one generation to the next and making them come to life, allowing us to feel deeply the emotional imprint left by where we have been, the record of holy, heartfelt memory.
Indeed, the Torah is truly a passport to our Jewish future as a congregation, crystallizing and strengthening our sense of what it means to be a Jew in the world today and ensuring the safe transmission of our sacred treasures from generation to generation. (But don’t take my word for it! I will be setting up a few extra chairs for this Shabbat’s Torah study at 9 am in the library so you can experience the journey through Torah for yourself.)
Our synagogue has thrived on a sense of partnership over our five decades. Yad b’yad, hand in hand, we have created a dynamic Jewish community. So what better way to celebrate our 50th birthday than with the creation of a Torah that will be written hand-in-hand with our scribe, Jen Taylor Friedman, the very first woman scribe. Over the course of the next year and a half, there will be multiple opportunities, for whoever would like, to participate in this great mitzvah of writing a Torah, fulfilling the 613th commandment. This will not only be a golden anniversary celebration but a golden opportunity! Everyone who participates in this sacred project, I know, will experience a thrill never to be forgotten by creating this legacy for those who will be sitting in these seats 50 years from now. Literally, we will be scribing ourselves into the history of our people and writing a new chapter for the Jews of Yolo County. This Torah, on which each of us can leave our spiritual fingerprints to bless the future, will continue to nurture and sustain Jewish life in our community for many generations to come.
On the weekend of October 28th-30th, we will commence the Torah project with an inspiring ritual. Join us as we stand, surrounded by a circle of blank pieces of parchment, each held by a young person in our community; each page a sacred scroll about to be born, each radiant face a Jewish soul coming into its potential, bursting with possibility. At that moment, all walls come down and we are all part of the grand story. We are the generation of the builders, the ones who have the sacred responsibility to bring the future to life, to continue the dream and fashion new dreams; creating a welcoming Jewish community, not just for today, but also for our children and grandchildren. Together we are creating a Munkatcher passport–opening gates, forging bonds, deepening our experiences on all levels! But this passport we will not take with us! We will leave it behind to provide inspiring and sustaining journeys to all those who will follow us for generations to come.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon!