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Dressing the Torah

There are different ways of being religious and spiritual. For me, I associate family suppers, the small rituals and suppers that occur at Rosh Hashana and Passover with the traditions with being Jewish. They recall for me Bella Chagall’s autobiography entitled Burning Lights in which she describes the boisterous meals in the shetl where families had to travel ( much like Chagall’s colourful vagabonds with their (peckalah) bags on their backs to gather with relatives: breaks from the work on harvests, or in fields or other physically-demanding work. Those gatherings, those reunions stand out in my mind as colourful, happily anticipated perennial events that marked and reinforced their lives.

We once had backyard neighbours who argued that you must attend synagogue to be Jewish, that humour and culture do not sustain the religion. Sadly the discussion turned angry with our neighbours, fuming and scorning us. So an interesting discussion dissolved into a fundamentalist rant. So much for Sholem Aleichem and stories of dysfunctional Chelm.

Strangely some years back, a workman who came into my kitchen, looked at my backsplash tiles and commented on how they looked so Jewish. Yes, the paintings are whimsical recalling yet again Marc Chagall, but what is Jewish about a shepherd with his lute, a sailor grabbing a lobster, or a person with a dish on his head? Maybe to some, that is Jewish humour. I don’t know.

In any case, suffice it to say, I don’t frequent the synagogue often. Even with my parents’ yahrzeit, I dislike being lost in the so fast paced speed and romp through the prayers that leave me continually searching for a familiar word gleaned in Hebrew School: that the experience is more a treasure hunt than an homage or call to remembrance, and it ends in my frustration and embarrassment. My husband usually kindly accompanies me and is able to point to what page, what line, what psalm is being chanted in the blur of flying pages by the person on the bema who usually sings rather nasally, occasionally calling out a page number. Perhaps he is aware there are lost souls such as I anxious for direction.

Yesterday was the final of day of my mother’s kaddish, and I expected it to be quite quick. But typically my sister, the shul-goer, did not afford me the correct information. So although she sat surrounded by all of her family including the 3 month grandchild, I was totally alone. Which was fine. There were a number of kaddishes said throughout the prayers, not just for mourners in an extended service; however, the prayers are almost all identical. As we began with the first, I felt myself overwhelmed in sadness and the tears began to drop from my eyes. I certainly had not expected this rush of emotion as my mother has been gone for slightly more than a year and we had done the tombstone ceremony just two weeks ago. So the stage had been set for another upheaval of deeply felt emotions.

The usher appeared at the aisle and inquired if members of my sister’s family and she would participate in the service. They agreed and then she poked me to ask if I would like to “dress” the Torah. I say “poked” because one of my hearing aids is being replaced next week, so at present, I am only hearing in my right ear. I nervously agreed and when I confided to my sister that I had no idea what I should do, she affirmed that she didn’t either because women had not been given that role previously: Judaism has been under the domain of men forever although many sects and even this particular conservative synagogue has allowed women to participate and chant from the Torah in diverse ways, never foreseen in the original procedures.

So, the day for me was all ready feeling full of upheaval. But, I figured that this was an honour I must not forego and really how hard could it be to dress the Torah?

No one told me when I should go to the bema and I had to ask my brother-in-law, for I would not understand the barrage of words announcing individual singers or attendants to the protocol associated with the Torah that were intertwined in the prayers. I reasoned that I might be able to make out my Hebrew name, Pesah, but then no one had even asked for it. He explained I should follow his son-in-law who would be holding the Torah when I dressed it. So I waited and when Joe rose, so did I.

I mounted the stage and was about to sit when the rabbi indicated, No, that Joe would sit. Someone brought the Torah over and indicated that there was a soft band attached with Velcro that had to be wrapped around the body of the Torah. It was a soft colour like the colour of a doe and it had to be stretched a little to fit around the scrolls. Next there was the outer robe with beautiful fine red roses appliqued on a light sky blue gray-blue background. Slowly and lovingly, I eased it over the wooden handles that furl and unfurl the endless parchment of hand written words.

I realized almost immediately that I had done it backwards.

Would the next reader experience a shock, a surprise and on opening it be unable to read the portion correlated with the passage of days? Would I have to fast for 365 days: for, if you drop the Torah, I believe that is the punishment! What was the rule for contravening the Torah’s dresscode?

Someone in a hushed tone, noted that Yes, in deed, the external wrapping of the Torah had been reversed. So I carefully inserted my hands beneath the dress, making sure not to touch the sacred parchment in order to lift the covering, much as I would have eased a well worn cotton undershirt over the head of a small child afraid of the dark, smoothly, softly, murmuring calming words of support, love and encouragement so as not to disrupt the process of ensuring the garment had been correctly seated.

These were introspective moments as I took my time, was so careful not to actually touch, disturb or frighten the people who live in the words of the text, not wanting to jar them. I wanted to offer my care, my affection, my connectedness to them, my forefathers, my foremothers, their stories, trials, tribulations: the words that scribes had managed to record and travel through millenniums into the present. It was a moment out of time, the feeling of being able to somehow relate to books which are so much a part of Jewish history that explain ,perhaps, who we are, where we have been, our travails, our travels, our expectations, rites and rituals and so much more : and so much bigger than just – I.

I felt I had been given a tremendous honour and my dressing the Torah backwards had extended the moment, lengthened it for me alone, clasped me and included me – if only for a brief time- into something more mysterious than I could ever comprehend, into the incomprehensible, unbelievable world that I have almost always failed to fathom.

Many years ago when my son started Sunday school, he told us he was afraid to go back. Why, we queried. He said the teacher said that the following week the class would draw back the curtains of the holy ark in the sanctuary to see the bones of our forefathers and he did not want to see any bones. We laughed and said, Not bones, you silly, BOOKS.

And here for me were the bones and the books. I felt the tender love of a mother as I tenderly dressed the Torah, a habit I have performed over and over again for my children and grandchildren, and even my own mother. And I was, as well, confronted by the scroll, cousins to books that have been the basis for so much of my life: the narratives, stories, words that have inspired my aspirations, work and focus of my life; and my life’s passion as a former teacher, writer and policy-maker and… dreamer.

As I recall those moments that felt so calm, so peaceful, so disconnected to my earthly family, they suggested for me the time out of time I had once experienced when so involved with my artwork, that I lost “me” for a few seconds and then was saddened to return to literal time, preferring that sense ( or loss of sense) of being one with something ethereal outside and beyond time. I had surrendered consciousness of myself and only realized the sensation once my ego, the me of me was regained: but much preferring being encapsulating into the oneness of something much greater than just myself.

So the day was a surprise. I will not forget my mother: I loved her dearly and my unexpected gift of dressing the Torah will not make me a shul-goer, but I was given something very precious yesterday, something that may suggest what the mystics gleaned or the rabbis intuited and study, something that joins us to the past in an inextricable way that perhaps makes meaning of who we are, where we come from and where we are going.

I don’t know, but I was grateful for the experience.

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