By Rabbi Joshua Weinberg
“All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which Adonai had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law… 8 And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, who was the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: ‘This day is holy unto Adonai your God; mourn not, nor weep.’ For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah Ch. 8:1-3; 8-9)
And there you have it: The first-ever written account of a public Torah reading. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe did something daring and completely unprecedented. In an unveiling ala Steve Jobs, he produced a parchment scroll with writing on it, stood on a platform, and read aloud. For the first time ever, and with the help of translators (mavinim or mayvens), the people heard their own story, which, in fact, brought them to tears. Bringing Torah to the people – a routine occurrence that now happens every three days – changed the face of Jewish history forever. The secret of Ezra’s success, in my opinion, was, as is often the case in real estate, location, location, location. Although he could have waited at the site of the destroyed Temple for the people to come to him, instead he made his way out to the water gate, where the people were, bringing the Torah to them. Much speculation surrounds this landmark moment and last week, as I stood at the bottom of the City of David in Jerusalem, right where the water gate might have been, I tried to imagine what bringing Torah to the people might look like in a modern setting.
Ezra united the Jewish people around a simple message. The Torah belongs to everyone and we must rejoice in it. This fundamental principle of Jewish life reminds us that we are, first and foremost, a people who identify with a collective narrative and are governed by our interpretation of the Torah’s law. We are a holy people who relish the opportunity to ritualize and sanctify all practices surrounding the Torah and its reading, and why we are proud to follow in Ezra’s footsteps by giving the gift of Torah. And like Ezra, we are giving an actual sefer Torah (Torah scroll).
Through the generosity of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego and the efforts of Rabbi Michael Berk, “Torateinu ARZA – Our Torah to the Land” is in the process of sending a Torah scroll from San Diego to Jerusalem. Since early February, this scroll has been visiting communities across the United States and is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem at the end of June, just in time to go straight to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for Rosh Chodesh Tammuz (the Jewish month of Tammuz, roughly corresponding to July). Its final destination is Shaar HaNegev, one of Israel’s newest Reform communities, and the sister community of San Diego.
Isaiah writes that Torah comes forth out of Zion and Jerusalem; but now we also have the opportunity to bring Torah into Jerusalem.
“This project is meaningful because it combines two of the most essential elements of Jewish life in one tactile experience,” explained Rabbi Debra Robins, when the scroll passed through Dallas, TX, by way of Temple Emanu-El. Helping this Torah scroll make its way across our country and then to our homeland brings our big Jewish community into closer relationships with each other. We are really connecting with the other congregations who are part of the adventure. At the same time, this project not only allows the words and teachings of Torah to touch our hearts and heads, but also allows us to touch the Torah with our hands and to hold it in our lives. It’s wonderful!”
Finally, this initiative gives us an opportunity to provide alternative Jewish expression in Israel. Interacting with the scroll as it travels, gives us a tangible and direct way to support Israel – both through the gift of the scroll itself and the support being generated along its journey. “One of the most important lessons I learned was that the Torah and texts of the Jewish bookshelf are ours,” says Student Rabbi Yael Karrie, the spiritual leader of Shaar HaNegev. “I wanted to have my own experience with Torah, and bring that to others. No one has a monopoly on the Torah, and we all have to work to develop our own individual and communal connections.”
Like Ezra, many rabbis, cantors, educators, and youth professionals are working tirelessly to find their “water gate” – the location at which they will meet people in order to provide meaningful experiences that positively impact both individuals and the collective. Just as Ezra publicly introduced Torah reading to the Jewish people, so too are we helping to bring one scroll to a small but significant kehillah (community). Follow the Torah on its journey, and look for it as it passes through your community.
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).