During a service some years ago a new father present for a baby naming almost (God forbid) dropped a Torah scroll. I had previously seen scrolls wobble, wiggle and writhe, but this one came within inches of hitting the carpet. After gasping, screaming and fainting, the congregation quickly regained its composure and proceeded as if nothing had happened.
Dropping a Torah scroll is no minor violation of shul etiquette. The Torah scroll represents the revelation on Sinai, the gift of God to humanity through the Jewish People. It is hand written on parchment with a quill pen, which takes nine months. A sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is not sold; it is not thrown away when it wears out, but rather is buried as a person would be. We rise in the presence of the Torah as a sign of respect. And so fumbles are viewed most severely.
The father felt terrible after the service. He knew something bad had happened. “Rabbi,” he asked in great distress, “is it true that if you drop a Torah the whole congregation has to fast for forty days? Tell me, just how bad is it?”
I explained that dropping a sefer Torah is bad, but not as bad as dropping a baby. Immediately his anxiety eased as he was able to put the incident in perspective.
Most of us were raised appropriately with a sense of awe and respect for Torah scrolls and all that pertains to tefilot (services in the shul). But when that respect causes a level of anxiety so great that one is afraid to participate in tefilot, have an aliya to the Torah, or otherwise participate, then it is time to ease that discomfort. A combination of embarrassment at not knowing what to do and anxiety about doing the wrong thing is for some a major impediment to meaningful and comfortable participation in shul.
At BEKI we address these concerns in several ways. The “Shabbat Shalom Learners’ Minyan,” which meets every other Saturday morning at 10:45 in BEKI’s Rosenkrantz Library, is an ideal setting for veteran and novice shul-goers alike to become more comfortable and expert in the shaharit and Torah services in a supportive setting. Lead by Steve Fraade, who teaches Rabbinics at Yale, and Rabbi Alan Lovins, who works as a psychotherapist in private practice, the Learners’ Minyan has helped many feel a deeper sense of awe born of greater understanding while increasing the level of comfort through nurturing step-by-step practice.
Workshops and courses on prayer and Torah reading, such as those taught recently by Rabbi Murray Levine and Amy Pincus, similarly offer interested individuals a way to learn more about our liturgy and davening. More such study opportunities will be offered in the coming months.
In our daily and shabbat services, we generally stress broad participation above proficiency or musical expertise. While it is nice for those leading tefilot to sound confident and melodious, we must remember that the tefilot are to a large extent (although not exclusively) directed toward God, and God (say our sages) values the prayers of those who are decent, kind and sincere above those who are only intellectually or musically talented. For the sake of our greater goal we can accept miscues, mispronunciations and missed melodies, and with this outlook we can keep such bumps in perspective. BEKI aims to be supportive toward those learning to lead the davening.
In educating our youth we try to maintain a measure of awe while providing familiarity and expertise. Every child ought to see an open sefer Torah up close at least once a year. Our Kadima and USY youth groups ensure that our teenagers develop a confident, expert and respectful approach to shul services.
And so, while it is bad to drop a Torah scroll, it would be even worse to let the fear of dropping it keep one from holding fast to it in the first place.
©: Jon-Jay Tilsen