I was first called for an aliyah to the Torah at the age of thirty-six. I was in a Chabad house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a stranger to the group of regulars filling the room, save for Rabbi Yosef Samuels, who had invited me. It was a short walk from my seat to the bimah (reading table). But in that brief period of time I became very anxious about what would be expected of me.
I recalled the synagogue that I infrequently attended as a boy, where the Ark stood in front of a large, sterile room, and only the richest, most influential members were called to recite the blessings before the Torah. In my boyhood, Judaism was very formal and distant, surrounded by ceremony void to me of meaning or substance. The Torah in the synagogue of my youth was something removed, having no relevance to my nor my family’s daily life. I had never before, in the 36 years of my life, seen the inside of a Torah scroll.
I was not expecting to be called to the Torah this Shabbat morning in Milwaukee’s Chabad House. I hesitantly approached the group of men surrounding the reading table. I could see only their backs draped in white tallitot (prayer shawls). I expected grim, serious faces to be peering out from beneath the white cloth pulled up over their foreheads. But when I arrived, they turned to greet me with warm smiles. One of them, a person with whom I had briefly spoken before the prayers began, gave me a gentle nudge of greeting with his shoulder. The others were chatting while the reader found the place to begin. I was surprised at how friendly and informally everyone behaved while the Torah scroll lay on the table. I was told to touch the Torah with my tallit and kiss the cloth where it had touched the holy letters. I stumbled through the English transliteration of the blessings, and then stood nervously while the Torah was read. I recited the second blessing, and was gently moved to the side of the bimah while a mi shebeirach was said in my honor. The man I knew put his arm around me while this was happening, and joked with me a bit while we stood waiting for the next reading to begin. There was an atmosphere of informality and intimacy with the Torah that astonished me.
“The Torah is no stranger,” Rabbi Samuels explained. “We live with it every day.”
In the following months and years, I was astonished to find just how intimate the Torah could become in both the lives of the Lubavitchers I came to know so well, and in my own life. I went through several Jewish yearly cycles, experiencing times of awe and veneration for the Torah, and times of familiarity bordering on irreverence. To drunkenly hug and dance with the holy scrolls on Simchat Torah! Who could have ever imagined!
But just as I was to become intimate with the Torah, so was it to become intimate with me. As I began to study, I discovered the Torah’s relevance in every area of my life. As its deeper meanings were laid open to me through the study of Chassidic teaching, I found that I could turn to the Torah for guidance in every circumstance. Regardless of my mood or frame of mind, I could approach the Torah and find it waiting for me. Even in times of anger or rebellion, the Torah showed forgiveness and guidance. In times of sadness and depression, I would find hope and encouragement. In times of joy and celebration, I would find words of thanksgiving and praise for the One who provides all goodness. There was not an aspect of my life that the Torah did not enter. Slowly it penetrated into my inner life, my career, my relationship with my children and parents, even the most intimate aspects of my marriage. When first introduced to the Torah I felt I was coming to know a distant relative of whom I was aware but had never met before; but with the passing of years I began to feel that my learning and observance was revealing the Torah that had always existed within me. The Torah became deeply embedded into my life, part of the weave and warp of my being.
Now, when I rushed forward in the synagogue to kiss the Torah, it was with much affection and familiarity. When on Simchat Torah I danced with the holy scrolls, my inhibitions and emotions loosened from l’chaims, I would close my eyes and hug the Torah close, spinning in circles, enjoying a physical intimacy with the soft velvet cloth and the sacred writings it covered.
Without losing its place as my teacher and guide, the Torah had become my intimate companion. Today, I continue to marvel that the most holy of G-d’s creations allows itself to be embraced by me.
By Jay Litvin.