I’ve always felt especially connected to the safrut, the uniquely beautiful calligraphy of Torah scrolls. As the sofer, the scribe, dips his quill in his black inkwell, with the emerging beautiful letters transforming the cream velum into a sacred Torah scroll, I think of the tagin. A “tag” is the crownlet adorning the top of certain scribal alphabet letters. The Hebrew the word ‘tag’ is made up of two letters only: tav and gimmel — my initials! Hence, my affinity to this special word.
“Tag” is a special word nor only for its aesthetic qualities but conceptually as well. According to Rabbi Akiva, the crownlets atop the letters hold the mysterious secrets of the Torah. The idea being that aside from the explicit decoding of the letters and words the crownlets hold their own unique mysteries of wisdom that are not overt.
It’s such a beautiful symbolic image — the mysteries of Jewish wisdom and tradition encapsulated in the delicate crowns above the actual letters of the Torah.
But setting all this aside, every child knows a Torah scroll is sacred. From childhood onward we internalize that we behave differently around a Torah scroll. Extreme deference is accorded this bedrock of our tradition.
As we grow older, we begin to understand the varying layers of sacredness ascribed to the Torah, to the point that an accidentally dropped Torah scroll warrants a fast by the community in whose presence this happens in. The fast is expected to triggers a reckoning, a stock taking, by the community, an act of reflection on any spiritual repairs the community needs.
Throughout our history, the Torah scroll has come to symbolize the power of continuity and commitment of the Jewish people. The Torah is the anchor that keeps the Jewish people moored in the harbor of our identity and faith.
Unfortunately, throughout the millennia, the Torah scroll’s symbolism has deepened through the anguish of persecution.
How many images of burning Torah scrolls have pierced Jewish history? The Holocaust was particularly powerful and painful in this regard.
When our holy scrolls are abused or burnt, it never ends with the desecration of an inanimate objects, which no matter how sacred, is what a Torah scroll ultimately is. Even on Tisha b’Av, when we mourn the destruction of our Holy Temples, our rabbinic tradition puts it in that context: wood and stone — buildings — were destroyed, versus human life.
But, as I say, the Jewish people know that when our sacred Torah scroll is pursued, it never ends with that. As symbolic as the destruction of our sacred text is, it signals the danger of haters intentionally destroying human life, Jewish life.
Experiences and images we never thought we would see or experience in America have increased. Shuls have been attacked. Jewish blood spilt just for the “sin” of being Jewish. Right here on these shores.
This past week, a Torah scroll was vandalized. Right here in the nation’s capital, on the George Washington University campus.
This is a difficult image, horrifying and very difficult to internalize.
As we contextualize on Tisha b’Av, thankfully it wasn’t a human being who was attacked, but rather, as the rabbis teach, a form of wood and stones, i.e., an inanimate object, versus human life.
But make no mistake, attacking a Torah scroll, aside from its inherent sacredness absorbing abuse, is a warning shot. It is a warning not just to the localized world of college campuses. It is a crucial form of a canary in the mine, a warning shot to all of us.