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Two Minutes of Torah: Nitzavim - Whose Torah is it Anyway?

As a Rabbi I have got used to handling Torah scrolls. We read from them on Shabbat, we practice from them during the week, we roll them into place and often we need to carry them between rooms in the synagogue. As a Rabbi handling the Torah scroll has lost some of the awe and wonder it once possessed, and so I live vicariously through the rest of the community. I am always struck by the deference of some elderly members as they approach the scroll, nervously stepping forward. I watch the anticipation of children becoming Bnei Mitzvah as they take hold of it for the first time, recognizing the power of what is in their hands. And I especially enjoy seeing the eyes of young children light up when the Ark is opened and they catch a sight of the Torah.

The Torah is one of the defining features of the Jewish community, and the scrolls themselves provide a link back through history and generations long since forgotten. Placed in the Ark, and often adorned with silver ornaments, it is hardly surprising that people feel somewhat disconnected and intimidated by the Torah.

But in many ways this is the antithesis of what God intended. In this week’s Torah portion it is clear that all of us should have access to, and feel comfortable with, the Torah. Moses addressing the people reminds them to keep the commandments and statutes from God ‘which are written in this Sefer Torah ’ (Deuteronomy 30:10) and then tells them ‘for this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off’ (Deuteronomy 30:11). Having received the Torah at Sinai, and having spent most of the book of Deuteronomy recounting the laws, Moses ensured that the Torah was very much in the public domain.

The Torah was intended for everyone, and is if to emphasize this it continues: ‘It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:12-13). In the Talmudic story of the Oven of Achnai (Baba Metzia 59a-b) this text is used to suggest that God cannot determine the meaning of Torah anymore, and that it is now solely our human possession.

However, in the Torah it seems to be stressing something else. The text emphasizes that each one of us can claim Torah for ourselves. The Torah is not in Heaven and it is not beyond the sea, which means that it is available to all of us. We do not need to send an emissary out on our behalf to get it; we should be able to get it for ourselves.

In this way our role as Rabbis and Jewish professionals is to help people to claim Torah for themselves. It is about giving people the tools so that they feel completely comfortable with the Torah, and by extension with their Jewish identity. We can maintain a sense of deference, power and excitement when we see the Torah, but it is ours, and each one of us should be comfortable taking hold of it.

And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: [audio]

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