December 9, 2021 |

Summer Lovin'

My son, Nadav, used to think that the ark in shul was the Torah's house ("is that where the Torah lives, Abba?") and that - just like we do - it comes out sometimes to go to shul. And - just like we do to each other - we hug it and kiss it when we meet. He never asked me if the Torah also gets to go to camp in the summer, if it gets paid vacation or if it ever just gets to take a break from being summoned by the congregation every 3 days or so to be read. But - if he does ask me, I'll be prepared. And this is what I'll tell him (sort of):

When we take the Torah out of the ark (and when we return it), we have a custom to parade it through the shul so that everyone can draw near and kiss it. The more who participate, the more honor and love goes to the Torah. It is also customary to lift up our children to kiss the Torah so that we can educate them in the love of Torah and its sweetness.

While the simple reason that we take the Torah from the ark is so that we can read it (and the procession is necessary to get it to the bimah, or reading table), I think there is also a deeper aspect to it. The traveling of the Torah has its own message.

This message can be seen in that special religious weight-lifting ceremony that we call Hagbahah. When the Torah is raised up, the custom is to point to the Torah and say:

"V'zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshe lifnei b'nei Yisrael.
Al pi Adonai b'yad Moshe"

"And this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the children of Israel.
Via the word of God, by the hand of Moshe."
(p. 146-7 in the Artscroll siddur)

We point to it to say - THIS is our Torah and we have no other Torah and we don't want any other Torah. The first line of the declaration - "and this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the children of Israel" -- comes from Deuteronomy 4:44 and the second line -- "via the word of God, by the hand of Moshe" -- comes from our Torah portion (Numbers 9:23; p. 782 in the Stone Chumash), which reads in full:

"By the word of Hashem shall they camp and by the word of Hashem shall they travel. The trust of Hashem they shall keep, via the word of God, by the hand of Moshe"

Though we only say the end of the verse, reading the rest of it in its original context clearly indicates that lifting up the Torah is associated in some way with the traveling of the Torah in the desert. So - in a way - our Torah travels today just like the Torah traveled then, except, you know, minus the mysterious cloud and the wandering in the desert.

But it's not just the traveling of the Torah that's important, but our own traveling. After all, the Torah and the Jews always traveled together in the desert! When we lift the Torah up for the whole congregation to see, we are declaring our ownership and our investment in the Torah. It was, is and always will be ours. When we travel with the Torah to and from the ark, we are saying that no matter where we go, we will take the Torah with us. No matter where it goes, we will follow it.

Taking the Torah out of the ark is not just about getting it to the bima, but to show that the Torah, in fact, travels! It's the same Torah for home and away games. It's the same Torah in the year 10 and the year 2010. It's the same Torah in Minsk and Manhattan. When we see the Torah travel, we should remind ourselves to 'take it with us' whenever and wherever we travel.

Moreover, we should follow the example of those Jews in the desert and make sure that the first thing we do when we travel and when we camp is to consult the word of God, to make sure that our camp is holy. Bringing the Torah with them meant that every oasis was not just a place to become physically refreshed, but also a place to recharge spiritually. No matter where they camped, they made that place a holy camp.

This is an especially relevant message as the summer approaches and many people go on vacation. We are particularly at risk for spiritual atrophy when we change our routines and leave our regular lives. It is then that we find ourselves tempted to be more lax about keeping kosher and being modest, to stop going to shul, to stop learning regularly, to act in ways that we never would at home. Summer vacation is Disney World for our evil inclination.

But the Torah doesn't pretend that it's some other, more chilled-out kind of Torah when it's in the Hamptons. The Torah doesn't sleep in on Shabbat mornings just because it's summertime. We don't suspend the summer Torah readings because school is not in session[1]. The Torah doesn't stop representing the word of God just because it's vacation. Neither should we. We should point to the Torah making its way across the desert of time and space and say this is our Torah, our constant companion, chayeinu v'orech yameinu, "our life and the length of our days."

So, this summer, stay plugged in. We'll still have Torah learning every Wednesday night. We'll still have Shabbat morning services, and so will someone else, no matter where you are. Consult to find a synagogue wherever you are and to keep track of dates and times. Use the Jewish Travelers Resource Guide to find places for Shabbat, even in Tibet. Bring your tefillin, your candlesticks and your chumash to camp. Keep your kippa on your head and your shirt on your back. And keep your Torah with you, like a credit card that accumulates Olam Haba[2] points. Like your American Express, you'll be glad you did.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] See the comment of Ramban on Bemidbar 10:35, quoting the midrash, that the Jewish people were punished for leaving Mt Sinai "like children running away from school, saying '[let's go before] He gives us more mitzvot."
[2] "The world to come" -- when one does mitzvot, they acquire credit for not just this world, but the next as well.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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