Our Torah Service: Re-living the Experience of Sinai and the Desert

The words sung just before lifting the Torah out of the ark,” Va’yihi binsoa ha-aron, va-yomer Moshe”…come directly from the Book of Numbers, (Chapter 10, verse 35). “And it came to pass, that when the ark set out, that Moses would say: ‘Rise up oh Lord and let your enemies by scattered…” These words are proclaimed by our service leader in advance of marching with the Torah, and are intended to echo our ancestors’ experience, and re-enact, as it were, how the Torah led us in the wilderness throughout our forty year trek. The verses just preceding this declaration state: “And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day” (Num. 10:34), and we know from elsewhere in the Torah that “a pillar of fire” protected them by night. Both the Torah and these miraculous signs, a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, were intended to reassure the people of G-D’s, presence and protection.(Exodus 13:21-22)

After the Torah was given at Sinai, the tablets of the Law (ultimately the broken and the whole ones) were placed in an aron (a special wooden box overlaid in gold) and carried in the lead whenever our people set out for their next resting place. Thus, the Torah guided our people, physically and spiritually, leading and protecting them, as well as inspiring them to learn and to do. Our re-enactment of receiving the Law and then placing it in the lead of our march replicates, symbolically, our experience in the wilderness. Our service leader marches around the congregation, giving everyone a chance to draw near to Torah. Some folks also have the tradition of turning to follow the Torah around the room. We stand and we follow, showing our respect and awe that such an ancient scroll with our history and traditions is still ours, even after thousands of years.

Then we return to the bimah and settle the Torah on the reading table. When the Torah is at rest, then we are at rest, and so we sit down. This, too, re-enacts our people in the wilderness who were led by the Torah, and then camped around the Torah at day’s end when the ark was set down. Once we settle the Torah on the bimah again, we chant, listen, read, and study, exploring the relevance of its teachings, and learning our early history, rituals, and values. For a brief moment, we stand with our ancestors at Sinai, linked to them in a long chain of tradition.

When the Torah service is completed, and we are returning the Torah to the ark, we continue the passage from Numbers 10: “uv-nucho yomar: Shuvah Adonai…”Return, O Lord unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.: (Num. 10:36) Then we complete the Torah service by singing a passage taken from Proverbs 3:18: “Aytz hayyim hee l’ma-hazeekim ba…” It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it…, after which the our ark is closed.

Our Sages of Mishnah and Talmud had the task of creating a portable religion in which the history and practices of our ancient ancestors, if they were to be remembered, had to feel authentic in every age. That was a huge challenge, and, as we see, they turned to the Torah as their guide!

Elaine Pollack