If you’re a Northern Exposure fan, you might remember an episode where Joel Fleishman, the only Jew for hundreds of miles around in a small Alaskan town, dreams about Jews coming to say Kaddish with me (prayer for the death of a loved one) on horseback, a little like the Magnificent Seven, led by a Native Alaskan in full gear and costume who tells Joel, “Have torah, will travel.”
Yesterday at Yom Kippur services I had the honor of holding the torah for the second time in my life (aside from brief passings of the torah during my kids’ Bar or Bat Mitzvahs), the first time being at Rosh Hashannah. This time, however, I had practiced (and thankfully, a few people showed me how to do this best) winding the torah together, gently but firmly pulling it down on toward me, bending my knees, and using all my arm muscles (so it seemed) to lift it up. Then I turned around, unwinding the scroll some, when we all sang our prayers, and then turned slowly and sat so my friend could dress the torah.
If it sounds like a lot of precise ways of moving and holding, it was, and that’s because the torah is both outrageously heavy and holy (not to mention expensive too). Sitting in the chair, holding the torah against me, was like holding a large toddler who refused to relax into me and go to sleep. Yet it also felt so wonderful, even as I shifted it from one shoulder to another, because of how sacred this text in, and it — along with our community and good deeds and right action in the world — is the cornerstone of Judaism.
I didn’t travel far while holding and carrying the torah, and at the same time, I went a long way to a place I cannot even name but felt breathing through me. I love how, in Judaism, we have hundreds of names for God based on the premise that you can’t really name God, only circle around God like you would circle around a fire. Holding the torah felt like another way to name the unameable, to hold and carry something ancient and still alive, holy and right at hand, mysterious and ready to open and invite us in. It was an honor that rings me through long after the torah was put away.
Pictures: Obviously Northern Exposure, someone (obviously not me) holding torah, me ready to go haul torah.