Thursday, October 9, 2014

Write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel...

It’s said that writing a Torah scroll is for Jews the 613th and greatest commandment. We believe that we are given the direction for this from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verse 19: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”  In fact, Torah scribes – sofer (or sofret, when we refer to the very small number of women who have written Torah scrolls) ­may dedicate their entire lives to only this work.  Most sofrim are men, not because women are prohibited from becoming ritual scribes (as some believe), but rather, because Maimonides explains that women are not obligated to fulfill this mitzvah.  This is simply because through history, women have been exempt from the mitzvah of studying Torah simply for the sake of studying Torah.  Tradition has dictated that women as the keepers of the home ought to be concerned more with mitzvot that concerned living Jewishly at home - keeping Shabbat in the home, for instance, and lighting candles on Friday evening.

Writing a Torah is a religious act – very nearly a prayer.  The materials on which the scroll is written and the implements used to do the writing are very specific, so that the scroll will be kosher.  The scribe is specially trained, and is expected to approach each letter with great kavanah – mindfulness, or intention – so that the integrity of the finished scroll should be above reproach.

Each letter must be as perfect as the human hand, guided, some say, by God, can make it.  It takes about a year to write one single Torah scroll, consisting of more than 300,000 Hebrew letters, painstakingly calligraphied by hand, and it may in some cases take even longer.  My own Hebrew is poor enough when davening (praying), and so the very thought of ever writing a Torah scroll is not one that has ever held great sway in my mind, as it is so far from the realm of what is possible for me to be confident that it is simply impossible.

Recently, though, I read an article in the Canadian Jewish News (, and suddenly the idea of being a part of creating a Torah scroll didn’t seem quite so impossible anymore.  While I will never become a sofret, I could perhaps be a part of something greater than I, and join this group of people committed to a rather audacious act of art.  I have designed and embroidered both my tallitot (the prayer shawls which accompany me to synagogue, and which I use for daily prayer), and every stich of each of them felt to me like a prayer.  Every stitch felt like a conversation with my mother.  I wanted to know more about this!

I checked out the website ( and contacted them to ask whether it was still possible to join the hundreds of volunteers already committed to the project.  Very promptly, I received an email message from Marilynne Casse, the Executive Coordinator of the project, who explained how it works – and it’s quite simple.  Volunteers complete a short registration form and make a payment of $18 (probably not at all coincidentally – 18 is numerically significant for Jews, as the letters which form the word also make the Hebrew word chai, or life), which nets you a kit that includes the Aida cloth, embroidery floss, and needles required for you to create a 14” x 14” square on which you will cross-stich four verses of the Torah.  In the end, more than 1,400 canvases will have been completed and stitched together to create a Torah scroll that is nine-feet-tall and about 100-yards-long (approximately 3 M by 90 M).  When it is finally completed – probably in about 3 years – the scroll will be the subject of a public exhibition – this in itself will be another tremendous undertaking, as it will require quite a lot of fundraising to accomplish.

The project is the brainchild of textile artist Temma Gentles, who conceived of it while on sabbatical in Israel as a way for people to connect intimately with the words of the Torah.  Volunteers are not required to be Jewish, nor must they be women.  There are women and men of many faith traditions participating, each of whom has particular reasons for wanting to participate.  For me, it is about Torah, yes, but also because every time I embroider something, I feel closer to my mother, who died in 2003, and who taught me to embroider when I was a girl.  I think that she would love this project.

So the next step is to receive my kit, and to begin my part of this project.  From time to time, I’ll post updates – perhaps even with photos.  Right now, I’m going to contact a friend in Israel, who is herself a textile artist, to invite her to check out the website as well, because she might also like to be a part of this.  And perhaps you would, to - so you should go ahead and click that link, and get in touch with the project!


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trying to be ready for Yom Kippur

In Judaism, confession (Hebrew וידוי, Viddui) is a step in the process of atonement during which a Jew admits to committing a sin before God. In sins between a Jew and God, our confession occurs without others present (The Talmud teaches that confession in front of another is a show of disrespect).  However, confession pertaining to sins done TO ANOTHER JEW is permitted publicly, and we make this confession on the morning of Yom Kippur (in fact, we make this confession several times on Yom Kippur – and when we do so mindfully, it’s a profound experience. Stay with me, here!)

The confession of a sin marks a point in time after which our demonstration of the recognition and avoidance of similar FUTURE transgressions show whether we have truly recovered from the sin and therefore whether we deserve forgiveness for it.  Forgiveness does not come with the immediate acknowledgement of the sin.

We say the Vidui in plural, confessing transgressions that we clearly know we have not committed (see below!), a firm reminder that our moral responsibilities go beyond our personal realms.  Judaism teaches that if we see a friend acting wrongly we are commanded by the Torah to privately and politely rebuke him or her, and when we don't, it is considered as if we share their wrongdoings.

The Yom Kippur confessional consists of two parts: a short confession beginning with the word Ashamnu (אשמנו, "we have sinned"), which is a series of words describing sin arranged according to the aleph-bet, and a long confession, beginning with the words Al Cheyt (על חטא, "for the sin"), which is a set of 22 double acrostics, also arranged according to the aleph-bet, enumerating a range of sins.  The humbling thing about this is that even if we can absolve ourselves of some of these wrongdoings, we have ALL fallen in SOMETHING on this list.  Darn it.  Just when I thought I was being a better Jew… Yom Kippur reminds me (as if I needed it) that there is always room for improvement!)…

We say,


Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibbarnu dofi;

He-evinu, vhirshanu, zadnu, hamasnu, tafalnu sheker;

Ya-atznu ra; kizzavnu, latznu, maradnu, ni-atznu;

Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzarnu, kishinu oref ;

Rashanu, shihatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.


We mean,

We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer, we kill, we like, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we perfert ,we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind, we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes.


And we say,

We have done wrong and transgressed, and so we have not triumphed.  Inspire our hearts to abandon the path of evil, and hasten our redemption. And so Your prophet Isaiah declared: “Let the wicked forsake their path, and the sinful their design.  Let them return to Adonai, who will show them compassion.  Let them return to our God, who will surely forgive them.”

The High Holidays are about return in both literal and figurative ways – children return home from university to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with their families; often, adult children return to their parents with their own children in tow to mark this beginning of our new year.  The biggest return, though, happens with Yom Kippur, when we are enjoyed to return to God.

Beginning with the Kol Nidre service on the evening before (this year, that will be this Friday, October 3rd), we work to prepare ourselves for a spiritual and often emotional marathon.  If you’ve never attended a Kol Nidre service, I recommend it – it’s beautiful, moving, powerful, and profound.  When sun sets on Kol Nidre, we begin a fast from all food and liquid until after the sun sets – and the shofar sounds for the last time – on Yom Kippur.  We abstain from all food and liquid so that we can concentrate only on what is important: relationship.  Relationship with one another, and relationship with God. 

This is the time of year at which Jews – even those who might not be so observant during the rest of the year – are conscious of making amends with those they feel they’ve wronged.  We are mindful of t’shuvah, or in English, return.  This is a time of reconciliation, return, making things right if we can, because this is the time in which we are written in the Book of Life.  Be Rosh Hashanah, yika tevu, u’v’Yom Kippur yika tehmu: On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.  May you be inscribed into the Book of Life this year.  May your new year be a time of remembering the importance of the prayers we say on Yom Kippur, and may you have the kavanah – the mindful intention – of being the person you were created to be.