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Restoring Torah reclaims past, inscribes future

11/15/2015 05:31:25 PM


The following column first appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Aug. 8, 2015.
By Rabbi Rob Lennick
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, 1988, in his seminal book, Night, tells a chilling story about witnessing the execution of three inmates in the Buna (Auschwitz-Monowitz) work camp during the Holocaust.
Two adults and a child were led to the gallows. The older men had committed acts of sabotage against the Nazis. The young boy was condemned because he wouldn't snitch on his compatriots.
Wiesel writes:
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. "Long live liberty!" cried the adults. But the child was silent.
"Where is God? Where is he?" someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. ... Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive ... For more than half an hour, he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him.
His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is he? Here he is -- he is hanging here on this gallows."
I had a personal conversation with Wiesel some years ago and asked about the meaning of this story. "The story says God struggles between life and death," I said. "Do you also think God lives or dies depending on how we act?"
Wiesel smiled gently and said, "God is beyond my knowing. But, isn't God more alive whenever we let God in? And when we lock God out ... well ... what's left? Usually a dark world. A world bereft of the divine, a very hollow life. If God didn't depend on us in some way, then why would God create us to begin with?"
After years of wrestling with Wiesel's answers, I believe God certainly exists with or without us. But, I also believe God only matters when he matters to us. God only makes a difference when we choose to make a difference by allowing him into our lives. We let in God when we let in love, when we let in goodness, when we let in justice, when we let in empathy.
History is rife with stories of how humans push out God. Every moment of human degradation, the despoliation of the earth, the perversion of justice or proffering of violence pushes out God. God as God is irrelevant more and more. God is turned into an idol to justify violence and religious terrorism. God is reduced to human terms. God is suspect to so many because religion is suspect so often-- religion eclipses God so often.
So, let's do something together across all faiths to demonstrate our community stands against the darkness.
Congregation Etz Chaim, the "community" synagogue in Bentonville, is beginning a project designed to bring the community together in the spirit of unity against the darkness of the Holocaust, all genocides, all hatred and everything that keeps God out of life. It is called "Project 613 -- The Community Holocaust Torah Restoration Project."
Project 613 -- Fulfills the 613th Commandment.
There are 613 commandments in Bible, and the 613th is: "Write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the children of Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:19). Thus, we are commanded to write a Torah scroll -- the five books of Moses -- on parchment in ancient Hebrew. The Torah forms the basis of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To fulfill the commandment, all a person has to do is write one letter. With a "scribe in residence," you, your family, your church, everyone can actually write the ancient Hebrew letters on the parchment -- all ages, all people, all backgrounds, all faiths.
By writing "God's Word," you become a vessel of that word. The word lives through you -- literally.
But, hold on. We're not just going to write a Torah scroll.
Project 613 -- Revives God's word (that the Nazis tried to obliterate).
More than simply writing a Torah scroll, we are going to restore one that is about 200 years old and was recovered in Prague after the Holocaust. The scroll is badly damaged, and it is the last remnant of a community that was destroyed by the Nazis. Currently marred by missing letters, damaged parchment and seams that need to be re-sewn, the Torah remains undeniably beautiful.
Our community will share the joy of restoring this sacred scroll, and, as a result, we will revive God's word. With each letter we write, we will be proving that, from the darkness of the Holocaust, the light of goodness prevails. We will be the bearers of light with every letter we write.
Project 613 -- Reclaims their past.
We are also the stewards of memory. By restoring God's word in this scroll, we will preserve the memories of the people whose lives were cut short by hatred. Every letter we write will carry forward their unfinished lives through our simple act of goodness. Each restored letter is like a restored life. We will add years to their lives by reclaiming their past. And each letter we write adds life to our years.
Project 613 -- Inscribes our future.
With every letter we write, we also are inscribing our own future. It will remind us of our sacred purpose to improve the world for all. This living Torah will be studied and chanted in synagogue and around our community for generations to come. It will bear our "signatures" as witnesses that we, as a community, came together in a shared desire to do more than proclaim words of blessing. It will be a living testimony of our common faith to bring blessing to others and to stand against hate.
The simple act of writing the letters of God's word with a quill and ink made from honey (God's word should be sweet.) will bring us together as "God's family," in unity and solidarity.
Congregation Etz Chaim requests the honor of the presence of the whole community to inaugurate Project 613 at 2 p.m. Aug. 30, at Waterway Church, 4074 Arkansas 12 in Bentonville, for the special opening ceremony with our scribe.
The scribe will be here a number of times throughout the year. You, your family, your congregation, everyone who wants to be part of restoring God's word can share in this sacred task. I am happy to speak at your house of worship, school or local group about Project 613, Judaism, the Holocaust or interfaith issues.
Congregation Etz Chaim is dedicated to being an open and thriving home for Judaism in our community and serving as a leader in the stewardship of interfaith understanding.
Until next time, Shalom!
Tue, May 17 2022 16 Iyar 5782