Monday, 31 March 2008

From Exile to Redemption - A Sefer Torah is Saved!

Pesach and Shavuos share a unique connection. It may seem that these two holy days are festivals in themselves, but there is a clear clue that they are linked. Sefiras HaOmer. As we count each day, we link these two festivals together. While Pesach is the festival in which the Jews were taken out of Egypt, it was for the purpose of receiving the Torah 50 days later that Pesach actually happened. Pesach is not a festival to itself. Shavuos too, is not a festival in itself. Each shares something of the other and both are intertwined and interlinked.

The number 4 is significant when talking about Pesach on the revealed level. The Haggadah and the Seder are all about the number 4. We drink 4 cups of wine. We ask 4 questions. There are 4 expressions of redemption spoken about. There are also 4 sons.

Just as the number 4 is so important for the Seder, it too shares a quality with another 4. Four generations. While the four sons represent various qualities of four different Jews, and even one Jew with four different qualities, it also represents four generations that are linked with each other. Four generations link a great-grandparent to a great-grandchild. And that brings me to the significance of this article.

My great-grandfather, HaRav Zelig Pinchas Shear must have been a special man. I never knew him personally, and neither did my father – who was named after him. But something of “his” found it’s way many years ago into my own hands.

My great-grandfather had been brought up knowing what Torah was all about! He studied in the famous Telz Yeshiva in Lithuania. The story I share certainly answers any questions I might have had about his level of scholarship and his fear of heaven. It shows his connection with Pesach, of leaving a country and fleeing, and bringing the Torah (literally) to another country – a receiving of the Torah elsewhere – Shavuos!

At the age of 32, he fled Lithuania, having already obtained Semicha from the famous Yeshiva. He arrived in South Africa and settled in that beautiful area of Uniondale in the Cape. A place that had no formal Jewish community. He literally became that community! He raised the finance; bought the property (my father actually has the title deed to the property), and built a most beautiful shul, its ceiling painted by an Italian artist, filled with the most exquisite design of stars and the heavens upon it. It still stands to this day and just a few years ago I travelled together with my father to see it, stand in it, and offer up a few prayers in this holy place. This place was where my great-grandfather had davened over 100 years ago. This was literally his shul.

In addition, my great-grandfather was a Mohel, having circumcised all of his 8 sons. He was also a Shochet. The shul premises also included a Mikvah and a Cheder (a room made for the sole purpose of teaching children).

From the stories I have heard of him, he was highly respected even by the non-Jews of the town. He apparently had quite a presence about him. A big man with a shining countenance. He was a powerful swimmer, and I heard a story about him diving in and saving somebody from the icy waters of his homeland. He became a successful shopkeeper and ostrich farmer, and in his spare time he would sit, spending most of his days immersed in his Torah books.

It seems the “shear” quality of Torah he was immersed in was filled with power. There was nothing fake about the Torah to him. It was real – every part of it. He wasn’t just a congregational Rabbi, or a good preacher of sorts. He knew what it meant to build an entire community, taking care of all its needs. More than this, he knew what it meant to be a presence even in a foreign environment amongst non-Jews.

Through the stories told by my grandfather, we knew that to him, his Torah was his most important asset. It was life itself. And when he fled from Lithuania, he brought with him a Sefer Torah, which he used in his Shul. We later found out that he had brought out , not one, but indeed three Sifrei Torah. We had always wondered what had happened to the Torah used in the shul, but the thought of locating it never entered our minds, until my Grandfather passed away, and my father decided to trace a family tree to perpetuate his memory.

The events leading to the discovery of one of these holy relicts prompts me to realize just how true it is of what the Baal Shem Tov teaches, that G-d leads events in the world exactly as He wishes them to be. This concept – Hashgachah Pratis – “individual Divine providence” extends even to the way in which a leaf falls from a tree. Not only does G-d want the leaf to fall from the tree, but He even orchestrates the exact path it must take to reach the ground. As the well known story is told, when a Chassid of the Baal Shem Tov asked his Rebbe if this really was true, the Baal Shem Tov looked at a leaf on the ground and asked the Chassid to lift it up ever so gently. In so doing, the Chassid noticed a tiny worm hidden underneath it. The Baal Shem Tov told the Chassid that the worm was in need of some shade, and so G-d had orchestrated all of creation, the winds and trees, the branches and leaves, to blow a certain way, so as to cause the leaf to land directly on top of the worm, in order to give it shade.

If G-d can take such care for the detailed providence of a worm, surely He is involved in every moment – and every movement – of a human being.

And so did the events occur. My father used to run a computer school from his home. In fact, one of his pupils was the son of the country Rabbi of South Africa. My father mentioned to him that he was compiling a family tree, and casually asked him, being the Country Rabbi, whether he knew of the little shul in Uniondale, and if there was any chance of locating the Torah used there. Imagine his surprise when the Rabbi replied that he indeed knew the Shul well, and the Sefer Torah just happened to be on his desk in his office. He said that it was a special Torah, being small in size and portable, and for those reasons, when the last Jews had left Uniondale, and the Shul had closed its doors, the Torah had been saved and had been used in the South African army. My father immediately realized and knew instinctively that this Torah must be the very one which had belonged to my great-grandfather! It had come all the way from Lithuania, and was now in the possession of this Rabbi – who by “shear” coincidence was the father of a pupil of my father’s!

It was not long after this, that the ownership of this Torah was established, and it was given back to us to be a part of our lives once again. This in itself was an absolute miracle! How could all of these events happened in such a way – and that in fact, a Torah – which may well have been Hefker (ownerless) actually found it’s way back into the hands of it’s “owner”?

It is a beautiful Sefer Torah. I must admit that it doesn’t look like much on the outside though. It seems that it was still protected by the original cover that it had when taken from Lithuania. And the columns of writing are really not that neat either! In fact, the columns are all of different sizes. Some have long lines running across the parchment, and others have short lines made of just a few words. Far from the perfection of Sifrei Torah that we have today, which are precisely written on only the best parchment! Our Sefer Torah had a slightly yellowy and even darker color in certain places.

Our Sefer Torah is no king in size! It’s rather sweet. One can easily hold it and carry around with one. When I made Aliyah with my new wife at the end of 2006, I brought it on the plane with me. As Divine Providence would have things, the plane wasn’t full, and the air hostess saw three open seats next to each other, and allowed us to sit in them. It was wonderful to see this Sefer Torah finally on a journey to the Holy Land strapped in its seat with protected seat belt.

Our Torah has been with us for quite a number of years already. I’ve danced around with this beautiful “jewel” of holiness on many Simchat Torahs. Unfortunately through the years, we’ve never really known whether it was Kosher or not, so we’ve never used it. How many years it could have been since it was last used is impossible to say. But the Halachah states that one may not use a Sefer Torah unless every one of it’s letters is present and Kosher. That being the case, and being unable to afford to check it, we have simply kept it with us without making use of it.

Sadly, our “Queen” has had to have the shame of having a piece of cloth tied around her on the outside, warning all outsiders of the possibility of its “inferior” status by not being Kosher. And so our queen has remained, very often at times, all by herself, and alone - separated from all the mighty kosher Torahs it would stand next to in the shuls she was left in. Our queen seemed less loved than the other Torahs. On those wonderful Simchat Torah occasions, I remember my joy at being able to carry her around and around. But when they would hand her out to others to share in the Simcha, they didn’t seem quite as excited. Usually she was given to the children to carry – because it would be easier for them. They of course wanted the “bigger” Torahs! The one’s with the beautiful pure white coverings on – not some simple blue covering with a Magen Dovid on it looking like it’s about to fall off!

We had tried getting help to have the Torah queen checked, but lacking the financial means to do it ourselves made things difficult. Well, I suppose, what with a Sefer Torah 150 years old, who would want to check it?! Perhaps it would be a waste of time, and a waste of our money.

When I arrived in the Holy Land, I had enquired about having it checked, and met with quite a few responses. One person told me that it was absolutely forbidden for me to have in my home and that I should immediately get it buried! He was adamant about this, and felt quite disgusted and irritated with me that I had even thought of bringing it to Israel when I had no place for it here. And after all, it’s 150 years old! I recall another person telling me on the phone – without so much as being prepared to look at our queen, that we should see to it that she would be buried immediately!

It seems that Divine Providence won the battle again. Things were not meant to be the way “others” see them. If my great-grandfather had considered this Torah to be inferior to the other two he had brought out (which we have never been able to locate), maybe he would not have brought it with him in the first instance! What chance could there have been of bringing three Sifrei Torah with him aboard a ship?! What would be the chances of success? Better bury the Torahs in Lithuania. Write new ones in South Africa – everything will be just fine there! Why should he concern himself with a small Torah that appears inferior to its bigger sisters? There must have been a reason. Again Divine Providence comes into the picture.

But my great-grandfather knew well what the value of a Torah is. In fact, he knew the value of this particular Torah years before he left Lithuania! And this has only become apparent recently.

I found a wonderful Sofer in Jerusalem, who upon hearing of our Queen, came over to our apartment, not even wanting us to move the Torah a few meters! He felt honored to be able to be the one who could take a look at this wonderful holy jewel. He opened the Torah up and quite quickly glanced through the Torah, tapping the parchment in various places to see that the ink was still attached to it. It seemed like a fuller check was necessary, but the good news was that the Torah was in excellent condition! It could easily be repaired and made use of again!

The Sofer explained everything to us. In those days long ago in Lithuania, when the Jews had to pay for pieces of parchment, they were required to work with whatever sizes they could afford and purchase at the time. As a result, when it came to writing, they would make use of each piece as best as they could. They did this by writing long lines at times, and shorter lines at other times, in order to make sure that every part of the parchment was used. Our question regarding the odd size of the lines had been answered. What could he tell us regarding the parchment itself? It was in excellent condition. They knew how to purchase in those days! And they bought only the best!

We were ready to have the Torah checked. Now, we needed a beautiful cover made for her. We posted some requests on various Jewish Newsgroups on the Internet asking if anyone would help with this project of ours. We had no idea who to contact, and we lacked the financial means to pay too. But we were prepared to take things one step at a time. First we would need to find someone who could design a cover.

One lady responded. Not only did she respond, but she was filled with a Simcha I cannot relate in words. She wanted the job! There would be no cost attached. Just the cost of the materials themselves. She was proud to be able to take part in restoring a Sefer Torah to a useable state!
I told her a little about the size of the Torah, and she asked me a few questions. Suddenly, she shouted out in excitement that she couldn’t wait to become involved in this project.

Our small, inferior-looking Queen had been neglected, but was at last beginning to reveal her true value through the kindness and sincere faith of some people sent to us by Divine Providence.

This wonderful lady told us that she knew of only two others similar Torahs. She said that these Torahs are called "Pogrom Torahs" because they were *especially* written this way in order to be carried around when the time would come. In other words, it wasn't just that they didn't have enough paper or couldn't afford bigger parchment etc., but that the Sofer - and all those that took part in the making of the Torah - did so because they knew they would eventually have to flee in the pogroms, and they obviously wanted to make sure they had a Torah with them. These Torahs are very precious indeed. And my great-grandfather had realized this years ago in distant Lithuania, and this was the reason that he had preserved it and brought it out with him to South Africa. The truth was that this Torah had been written exclusively to be able to continue teaching Torah under the most oppressive conditions. It would be able to be transported around the world with ease. This insignificant Torah – the “ugly duckling”, actually deserved a place of honor in its role of perpetuating the Jewish religion.

And now, back to the festival of Pesach – a time of fours. Great-grandfathers to great-grandsons. Shavuos, a time to receive the Torah. Which Torah will we choose to receive this year? Will it be the kind that is externally big and beautiful, or will we perhaps think again. Perhaps we’ll choose the Torah which seems rather small. In fact, it may even have a “band” tied around it, seemingly indicating some sort of inferior status. But maybe, inside this Torah, there is far more good, kindness and truth. It just takes a little patience to see behind the mask of materiality. The mask that calls out in words of holiness “I am greater”. Perhaps, with just a little patience, we can dig a little deeper to find that hidden amongst the thorns lies a rose.

The story is told of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya. Caesars daughter once chanced upon the physically ugly looking Rabbi. “Shame, such beautiful wisdom in such an ugly vessel,” she told him. He replied “My daughter, in what type of vessels does your father keep his wine?” Said Caesars daughter “in earthen vessels.” “What then is the difference between you father and the common people,” he asked. After asking him where they should be kept, he replied “People as important as you should keep their wine in gold and silver vessels.” She notified her servants to make the change, and the wine was transferred to the beautiful gold vessels. The wine turned sour. Caesar was angry! He asked her why she did this, and when told it was the doing of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya, he summoned him. Rabbi Yehoshua explained to Caesar that he was simply giving the same advice to his daughter as she had given to him.

Shavuos – a time for self refinement to finally set it. After 49 days of counting the Omer, and working on improving character flaws, we can finally enjoy and reap the rewards. Modesty is beautiful. It shines. But its light is only available to those prepared to see it. A Sefer Torah, small and hidden. For so many years considered to be worth nothing. Considered to be deserving of burial. Yet some human beings had the patience to see its worth and its light! Finally, after 150 years, our Queen is on her way to being restored to her fullest beauty. She does not do this for herself though, but so that each of us can recognise what she truly is all about, so that each of us will appreciate what true goodness, kindness and beauty is all about.

“כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה" “All the goodness of the daughter of the King is inside” (Tehillim 45:14)

For those reading this article and wish to partake in the project of restoring this Sefer Torah to a completely usable status - which includes a comprehensive check - or for those wishing to contribute to aid in purchasing a beautiful Aron Kodesh for the Torah to be used in the Yeshiva, please would you donate - whatever you are able to - by clicking on the button below. Thank you so much!

1 comment:

Dawn said...

Wow! I just ran across this one. Very beautiful story. Very touching. Thank you for sharing a part of the journey of this special treasure, the Torah.

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