Earlier this week I was meeting with Spencer to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat. We decided to go on a bit of a Torah scavenger hunt to find the verses he would be reading so that he could see how they appear in our specific Torah. It was a bit of a race to see who could find them first. We rolled through the mysterious, vowel-less, unpunctuated columns, passing over Lech-Lecha, skimming through the beginning of this week's Parsha, Vayera, until we were close. And then we zoomed in on a column and started looking with complete focus for the particular "Vayomer Avimelech..." and "And Said Avimelech..." that Spencer will be reading. After a couple close calls, Spencer spotted it! With deserved glee, he had found the verses first. We took a picture and practiced reading them.
Then, as we closed up the scroll, I explained that was how it was done every week, everywhere. He seemed surprised and delighted in the best possible way. There is no secret decoder ring, no magic rabbinic bookmark. Each week it is a treasure hunt to roll the Torah to the spot we need it next, finding our way through an ancient text, written without chapters or page numbers on parchment.
I always love the hunt for the words. But what struck me this week was the bit of awe on Spencer's face that this was the behind-the-scenes process. It is precisely that awe which captivated my imagination throughout rabbinical school. There were so many moments when I thought to myself, "This is how it's done!?" In truth, Judaism has always been a Do-It-Yourself tradition. This is the part of Judaism that still hearkens back to folk religious practice. There is almost nothing that actually requires a rabbi. [The only thing rabbis can do that everyone else can't do it, is make other rabbis!] Judaism is a spiritual practice for anyone that holds fast to it, anyone who wants to make it it their own. You too can be the person that rolls the KT Torah every week!
While I spent so much time in my early 20's seeking out DIY Judaism, what I realized in rabbinical school and beyond, is that Judaism is itself a DIY religion, in all its scrappy glory. In delegating the doing to someone else, we miss out on so much of the fun. And perhaps more profoundly, there is a deep sense of agency and satisfaction that comes with knowing how to do it ourselves. This is the wisdom of the Israelites response to receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai: "Na'aseh v'Nishmah...We will do it, and then we will understand its meaning."
Rabbi Ari Lev
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