I wish there were sweet words of Torah to offer in a moment like this, ones that would be like honey from the rock. I wish I could say that I wasn’t half numb and half raw all at the same time; half dazed in disbelief and half devastated to the point of it hurting. I can’t even comprehend what kind of human beings could enact such savagery upon innocent children, young and old, women and men. Such hatred. Such barbarism. It is unimaginable to think about the suffering of those held hostage. It is unfathomable to know that this many Jews haven’t died in one day since the Shoah (Holocaust).
As the horror and enormity of the news was unfolding from Israel this past Saturday while we celebrated Shabbat and prepared for Simhat Torah, we gathered together heartbroken and in shock. We found a way to hold each other. We honored the Torah in a subdued version of our usual joy, as we circled the Sanctuary holding the Torot, a different age group for each hakafah, and we chanted the verses praying for God to save us. Each time, the Torot were brought to the center of the circle and we sung our hearts out, expressing our anguish and pain. It was comforting to be in community. It was powerful to know that we could cry out together. Though our hearts were broken, they were beating together with the Torah at the center.
And then, in our Simhat Torah service on Sunday morning, there was that exquisite moment when Judith Trachtenberg, our Kallat Torah, read the last verses of the Torah, ending with the word “Yisrael.” Then Micah Dicker, our Hatan Bereshit, chanted the beginning verses, starting with the word “Bereshit.” There is actually a tradition to not take a breath between reading the last letter and the first, emphasizing the continuity between the end and the beginning of the Torah.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslav emphasizes the power of bringing together the last letter of the Torah, ל (lamed), and the first letter of the Torah, ב (bet). Together, they spell לֵב (“lev”). As he teaches us, “The Torah in its entirety is called ‘lev’ (heart). The heart is the dwelling place of the spirit” (Likutei Moharan 10:7).
The B’nei Yissaschar (Tishrei 13:3) teaches that the Torah, symbolizing the unity of God and the community of Israel, is a seal upon the heart based on the verse: “Let me be a seal upon your heart…for love is fierce as death (Song of Songs 8:6).”
The fierceness of death these last days has been incomprehensible. And there is no doubt the death and destruction will continue and countless more innocent lives, Israeli and Palestinian, will be lost.
In his teaching, the B’nei Yissaschar paints an amazing picture of how the lamed at the end of the Torah and the bet at the beginning are united to form “lev.” “The letter lamed grabs the beginning letter of bet. That is the seal of the heart.”
This image of the lamed (anthropomorphized) grabbing for the bet teaches that there is no inevitability to unity. There is no guarantee that the heart will be preserved. We have to grab it. We have to want it. We have to stretch to reach it.
In the midst of the madness of this world, we have to struggle for our hearts to remain connected and not hardened. We will have to reach out to one another and hold each other to preserve our spirit and help sustain our brothers and sisters in Israel. We will have to assert that, in the midst of death, we will fiercely love and long for a seal on our heart that is worthy of God’s name. For thousands of years, the Torah has been the heartbeat of our people. It has connected us to each other and to God. And it teaches us that though it seems like the end is in sight and the book will close, the heart beats on. Even when we feel we can’t breathe. Someday a beginning will arrive and, with it, the light. God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. I pray that day comes soon.