Last Sunday night my synagogue in Yerushalayim celebrated the inauguration of a new Sefer Torah, Torah scroll. It was a very happy occasion during which hundreds of people danced in the streets while the children carried torches which made it, together with the stars in the sky, a nearly mystical experience.
While dancing around with the scroll in my hands I was struck by an unusual thought: The item I carry in my arms does not at all fit into the times in which I live.
Here we are living in a world of the most sophisticated technology. We walk on the moon, travel around space, converse with each other via satellite and make use of the internet as if this is the most normal thing to do. Physicians remove and restore people’s hearts, replace other parts of the human body or repair them as if they were working on an airplane or sowing machine. In a little while we will witness other scientific breakthroughs which will utterly surprise us and before we know what is happening, other even more amazing inventions will usher us into our world of which we were sure they were impossible. Everything moves, changes and all of this takes place so fast that the conventional meaning of “speed” no longer has any relevance.
And here I am dancing with a script which has totally ignored any of this. Nothing about this text has changed since the day that Moshe received it at Sinai. Not only did the actual text never change but even the way in which the scroll itself is written has not undergone any alteration. It is still a human hand which must write the text. No word processor can take over. It is still the same quill with which we must use and nothing dramatic has happened to the formula which produce the special ink. Even the parchment is prepared in the very same way as it was prepared in the days of the prophets. If somebody did not know better and looked at the scroll I carry in my hands he would think that I had discovered it in a cave where people thousands of years ago used to preserve their holy texts like the Dead Sea scrolls.
While Jewish law always encourages the use of the latest scientific knowledge and has no problem with the latest development in treating infertility, flying a space craft, using the most advanced tool to construct a synagogue or technical device to make it easier to observe shabbath, when it comes to the writing of a Sefer Torah no technological discoveries are appreciated. They are basically rejected (1).
Ours is a future orientated religion. We are not afraid of the latest technologies because they allow us to fulfill, in ways undreamt of by our forefathers, the divine mandate to cure diseases, create more pleasant ways to live our lives and make the world a better place. All this is beautifully expressed by our sages when they state that we are to become partners with God in the work of creation. But the very text which demands all this from us, does not allow us to make use of any of this when it comes down to the physical writing of this very demand.
All of this conveys a most important message.
While living in a world which is constantly in a flux and where matters are able to change overnight, there must be a place of stability in which we can take refuge. We are in great need for unshakeable foundations which do not move like quicksand. If we did not have such basics we would be lost and overwhelm us by the very technology we have created. While we benefit from all these new inventions, they also create confusion. They have often created moral problems which overwhelm us and consequently we start to wonder whether there is no need to overthrow all our moral standards in order to accommodate all the new possibilities open to us. And while many of us know that this will only lead to more and more problems, many others are calling for such radical steps thinking that it will only make things better. We need certainty but we can no longer find it. The situation had become so crucial that we realize that unlike our forefathers who had to deal with problems related to ideology, we have now arrived at a situation where our very human identity is at stake.
Looking and taking notice of a Sefer Torah is therefore of great value. Here is an item which has not changed an iota. Its very physicality shows stability. It is the only item in the world of man which was not prepared to give in to the need for change. While its text is telling us that things indeed need to evolve and become more sophisticated, there are basic values which should not. Not only are the basic moral positions in the Torah not to be changed, even its very physical representation in the form of an “old fashioned scroll” sends us that message. It does not want to accommodate everything, neither does it want to accommodate itself. It is beyond time and space and hence disconnects itself from the so called new developments which time always asks for. It wants to stay itself, on its own terms and therefore offers us a haven of stability and genuine identity in a stormy world. In that way, it reminds us of eternity and of an other world in which eternal standards prevail and where there is the tranquility which we all long for.
A Sefer Torah teaches us that not everything which is old is also old fashioned. Writing with a word processor has in many ways depersonalized ourselves, running our world by remote control has not done well for our souls, walking on the moon has not helped us to know our next door neighbor any better. And above all it has robbed us from our own human identity.
It is therefore most meaningful that one item kept its cool. It is an item carrying a text which has had a greater influence on the world than any other text we know of. It has changed the world as nothing else, it encourages man to move, to discover and to develop. But it is written by the hand of man, with a quill on a parchment as if it to say. Be yourself. Do not get run over by the need for progress.
(1) We are aware of the fact that there are some slight changes in the ways in which we produce all these components today, sometimes making things a little easier, but basically the formula stay the same. In the responsa collection Ohr Yitzchak of Rabbi Yitzchak Abady of Jerusalem, Yore Deah, siman 54 ,the author suggests ways in which a Sefer Torah can be written without the scribe actually writing the letters, making use of the latest technology. Besides the fact that this suggestion has not been accepted by the fast majority of halachic authorities, we would like to add that this suggestion is neither in the spirit of Judaism and what a Sefer Torah should stand for in the ideological sense of the word. This matter however goes to the very root of the difficult question to what extent ideology can play a role in halachic issues, a long and difficult topic and beyond the scope of this essay.